MINNEAPOLIS >> The Minnesota Vikings, after watching their late-third-quarter 17-point lead vanish at the hands of the indefatigable Drew Brees, went back in front of the New Orleans Saints on a field goal with 1:29 left.
Trailing by two with that much time? That was no trouble for Brees, who moved the Saints in position for the responding field goal with 25 seconds remaining.
The problem was they left just enough space for Case Keenum and the Vikings to answer with one of the NFL’s all-time last-play stunners.
Keenum completed his last-ditch heave near the sideline today on the game’s final play to Stefon Diggs, who slithered away from the Saints for a 61-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 29-24 victory and a spot in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia.
“I don’t know what the percentage was,” Keenum said, “but just try to give the guy a chance.”
The play the Vikings ran, believe it or not, is called “Seven Heaven.” Kyle Rudolph, Jarius Wright and Diggs all ran sideline routes from the right of the formation, with Diggs the deepest with his break coming at about 25 yards.
This wasn’t quite as improbable of a play as Franco Harris on the Immaculate Reception for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 playoffs , which was also in the divisional round, but these Vikings are on some kind of special path.
The Vikings were out of timeouts and nearly out of options when Keenum took the snap with 10 seconds left and dropped back from his 39-yard line. He lofted a throw to Diggs, who jumped in front of Marcus Williams before the Saints rookie whiffed on his awkward attempt to cut underneath Diggs for a tackle.
Nobody was behind him in the secondary, as Diggs knew before he pivoted to keep his balance, keep his feet in bounds and keep running across the goal line.
“I had a pretty good view of it,” Rudolph said. “I couldn’t believe it. Things just don’t work out that way.”
Particularly for the Vikings, whose previous victory in the playoffs had been after the 2009 season at home against Dallas in the divisional round. They lost in overtime the following week in the NFC championship game that year at New Orleans, one of the many late collapses in team lore that have conditioned Minnesotans to brace for the worst. So while only defensive end Brian Robison is still around from that painful loss to the Saints, this thriller at least served as a leveler of sorts for a fan base accustomed to being on the other side.
“It’s a turning point for everybody,” Diggs said. “The majority of people doubt us. They don’t think it’s going to happen, especially because of history. People have a way of saying history repeats itself. I guess this is not one of those cases.”
Now the Vikings can become the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their home turf, if they beat the Eagles. Instead of the usual win-or-go-home stakes, they’re in a win-and-go-home situation.
“It would’ve been nice to be home, but I feel like if we take care of business the way we’re supposed to we’ll have another chance to see our fans,” Diggs said.
Here are some other key developments during the game:
Brees will turn 39 on Monday, a celebration that’s sure to be muted so soon after this crushing loss. After finishing 7-9 in four of the previous five seasons, the Saints were one of the NFL’s biggest breakout stories in 2017 with an energized and revamped defense and the potent running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. But how long will Brees, whose contract is expiring, want to stick around with a Super Bowl ring already in hand?
“I’m more toward the end of my career than I am at the beginning, I know that,” Brees said. “That’s all I’ll divulge.”
Brees finished 25-for-40 for 294 yards and three touchdowns, all in the final 16:16 of the game, but his performance was tainted a bit by two costly interceptions before halftime. One came on a leaping grab by safety Andrew Sendejo that set up a touchdown drive for the Vikings in the second quarter. The other came off a tip by Everson Griffen at the line that sent the ball fluttering into Anthony Barr’s arms at the Minnesota 10-yard line to thwart the next possession.
Ted Ginn had broken open on a post pattern on the first one, a first-and-10 play from the New Orleans 15, and Brees saw an opportunity.
“I just forced it. There was no reason to do that,” Brees said.
FORBATH FINISHES STRONG
Kai Forbath missed a 49-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds of the first half, but he was good from the same distance in the fourth quarter and again from 53 yards to put the Vikings up 23-21 with 89 seconds to go. That gave him three makes against the team that cut him right before the 2016 season in favor of Wil Lutz, whose 43-yard kick gave the Saints the lead before the Keenum-to-Diggs stunner.
“I was ready to kick another one,” Forbath said, “but what an incredible way to win.”
WOE FOR WILLIAMS
Williams was sobbing in front of his cubicle in the locker room afterward, his face buried in a folded white towel, before composing himself for a stand-up performance in front of the assembled press.
“I’m going to take it upon myself,” Williams said, “to make sure nothing like this happens again to me.”