Five decades worth of bad fortune, bad kickers and last-second heartbreak. That was what it meant to be a Vikings fan. But with one play, all of that karma was paid back, at least in part. With one play, another Minnesota defeat snatched from the jaws of victory turned into an improbable 29-24 Vikings win.
Let’s get into it.
Minnesota built a 17-0 halftime lead with dominant defense, effective play-calling and incredible third down efficiency. But that all disappeared in the second half. Drew Brees became Drew Brees, throwing three touchdown passes in the second half. After playing mistake-free football in the first two quarters, Case Keenum came back down to Earth. He missed some open throws and made a bone-headed interception in the third that set up a Saint touchdown.
The two teams traded scores in the fourth with the Saints kicking a field goal in the final minutes to go up 24-23. With just one timeout and 80 yards to go, it was looking like yet another notch in the belt of Vikings tribulation. And as Keenum and company attempted a haggard game-winning drive, this writer put the finishing touches on his recap of an early Minnesota good bye.
But then Stefon Diggs happened. Keenum flung a sidearm pass downfield towards the right sideline. Diggs leaped to catch the ball while New Orleans safety Marcus Williams inexplicably dove at his legs, missing completely. Diggs turned to see an unobstructed route to the endzone. A 61-yard touchdown later, Diggs held the ball in the end zone, faced the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd, flung his helmet to the side and expressionlessly soaked in the greatest moment of his career. Somehow, some way, the Vikings were going to the NFC Championship Game.
The whole defense deserves credit for slowing down Brees and the Saints’ offense for much of the game. But this choice has to be Diggs. It would have been merely a decent game without the final play: five catches for 76 yards. But with his miracle 61-yard catch-and-run, Diggs etched himself into Vikings’ lore. His final total was six catches for 137 yards to lead all receivers.
It would also be remiss to not give credit to Keenum for the throw. Keenum played a decent game, particularly on third down. But the last pass to Diggs was as good as it got. Keenum threw into coverage but high enough that only Diggs could get it. For all the limitations we have expressed about Keenum’s ability to throw downfield, none of it was to be seen on that throw.
Xavier Rhodes had a bizarre sequence towards the end of the third quarter. Andrew Sendejo was knocked out by Michael Thomas on an incidental collision. Rhodes, finding the hit egregious, subsequently exploded, yelling at Thomas, the officials, his teammates, everyone. A play later, Thomas burned Rhodes badly for a touchdown. Teammates and coaches had to settle Rhodes on the sideline as the All-Pro corner slammed his helmet and continued his tirade.
That sequence of play seemed to play a factor in momentum swinging New Orleans’ way in the third quarter. Keenum threw an interception on the next drive and the 17-point Viking lead was whittled down in the blink of an eye.
It was not a great game in general for Rhodes. While he has made a habit of shutting down top notch receivers, Thomas went for seven catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that are better than any receiver has put up against Rhodes in 2017.
It was looking dreary for a while but Vikings fans will finally get the matchup they have been looking towards all season. For much of 2017, experts were largely split on whether the Vikings or the Philadelphia Eagles were the best team in the conference. The Vikings seemed to have grabbed the label after Carson Wentz went down with injury, but now they get a chance to prove it as they travel to Philadelphia next week for the NFC Championship Game.
With just one more win, the Vikings can do something that no other team has ever done: play a Super Bowl in their own stadium. After today, it seems the football universe may be paying back a few debts to the Minnesota faithful.
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