MINNEAPOLIS -- It was supposed to be too late for Brett Favre.

Too late in his career. Too late in the season. Too late to make it work with his head coach.

He was supposed to be on a tractor by now. 

Instead he was helping the Vikings' offense plow through a Cowboys defense that had been one of the league's best in a 34-3 victory Sunday that earned the Vikings the right to meet the Saints in the NFC championship game in New Orleans.

The 40-year old Favre performed like a much younger man, throwing for four touchdowns and posting a 134.4 passer rating. He also played like a much younger man, celebrating big completions with chest bumps, side bumps and fist pumps. 

He smiled a lot too, with a grin that seemed to stretch from Minneapolis to Green Bay.

"This," Favre said, "is what I came back for." 

If this is over the hill, we all can handle it.

"He's gotten better and better every game," said Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Favre.

Favre said he was playing with as much enthusiasm as ever. 

"I know how difficult it is to win a playoff game, regardless of age," he said. "I probably appreciate it a little more than the other guys in the locker room, especially the younger guys."

Sixty percent of Favre's passing yards went to Sidney Rice, who has had a breakout season playing with the future Hall of Famer. Rice had six catches for 141 yards and three scores Sunday.

On their first touchdown, Rice found himself covered one-on-one, inexplicably, by strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh on a fly pattern. After a perfect strike by Favre for the 47-yard score, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips -- who reportedly has a contract extension in the works -- was yelling at secondary coach Dave Campo.

The second touchdown was the best. Rice's assignment on the play was to block Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He did, and found himself on the ground. He got back up and for the heck of it ran to an open spot in the field. Favre scrambled and found him for the 16-yard score.

The final scoring hookup, a 45-yarder, came against a defense with both safeties blitzing. Left one-on-one with cornerback Mike Jenkins, the 6-foot-4 Rice ran a nifty post route and Favre threw another pass right on the money. 

As remarkable as Favre to Rice was, the Vikings' defense might have been even more impressive, coming up with six sacks and three takeaways. It was "without question" their best defensive performance of the season, according to defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

"We put on a nice show today, coverage and rush," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said.

Despite having two weeks off, the Vikings didn't look like a rusty team. They looked like a lively one. And they played in front of a lively crowd at the Metrodome that responded noisily to anything that worked for the Vikings.

Like the two divisional playoff games that preceded it Saturday, this game was one-sided. The Vikings led 14-3 midway through the second quarter, and the result never was in doubt after that.

Perhaps the Vikings and Saints were saving the drama for next week.