2018-01-14 21:21:03
Vikings Shock Saints on Last-Second Touchdown by Stefon Diggs

21:21, January 14 340 0

MINNEAPOLIS — About an hour and a half before his playoff debut, Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum came bounding out of the tunnel at U.S. Bank Stadium, a bundle of kinetic energy, pumping fists and slapping hands and bumping chests. He anticipated feeling nervous — he always is, he said last week — but a good nervous, an excited nervous, a carpe-diem kind of nervous.

He had been waiting his entire peripatetic career for a moment like the one that came Sunday, when Keenum had 25 seconds left to rescue his defense, to demonstrate that his remarkable season was more revelation than fluke, to lift the trailing Vikings — and a fan base grated by playoff despair — to victory against the New Orleans Saints.

On the final play, Keenum flung the ball downfield, in the general direction of Stefon Diggs, who jumped, caught it, and sped untouched down the sideline. The Fox television broadcast panned to Keenum, who kept saying, “Oh, my god,” after Minnesota escaped with a 29-24 victory, preserving its bid to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

Plenty of fans departed, numbed by the cumulative anguish produced by years of field goals that had gone against the Vikings, after Wil Lutz drilled a go-ahead 43-yarder that sent Saints personnel in the press box exclaiming that they were headed to the N.F.C. championship game next Sunday in Philadelphia.

From the misses by Gary Anderson (1999) and Blair Walsh (2016) that cost them seemingly certain victories to the overtime conversion by Garrett Hartley (2010) that escorted the Saints into the N.F.C. title game, the Vikings’ postseason history is defined by field-goal attempts.

Only a few players from that game populate the teams’ rosters, but one of them is Drew Brees, who gives the Saints the advantage, his teammates believe, in every game. After Minnesota’s Kai Forbath kicked a 53-yarder with 1 minute 34 seconds left, Brees marched the Saints 50 yards, extending the drive on 4th-and-10 by finding Willie Snead for 13 yards.

The Vikings’ defense considers itself the best unit in the N.F.L. playoffs, and the statistics support it: They are first in points allowed, second against the run and second against the pass. They had held the Saints’ powerful offense scoreless until late in the third quarter, but Brees, assisted by a blocked punt, fired three touchdown passes within a span of 14 minutes, turning a 17-0 deficit into a 21-20 lead with 3:01 remaining in the game.

Keenum became the first playoff debutante to beat a quarterback with at least 10 postseason starts since Tim Tebow of the Broncos outlasted Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the 2011 wild-card round.

The N.F.C. championship in Philadelphia next weekend will feature two reserves elevated by injury, a matchup of Nick Foles and Keenum, teammates on that paragon of mediocrity known as the 2015 St. Louis Rams. In a league where the quality of quarterback so often defines the quality of a team, the conference finalists reinforce the value of having a complete roster.

The mandate for Keenum, as submitted by Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur, was to complete lots of passes, especially the deep ones, and play smart, efficient football. As he has done for most of the season. As he did for most of Sunday, completing 25 of 40 passes for 318 yards, with one notable exception coming in the fading minutes of the third quarter.

On the first play after Brees connected with Michael Thomas for a 14-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, Keenum floated a pass toward Diggs, double-covered along the far sideline. Leaping, safety Marcus Williams caught it and returned it to the Vikings’ 30-yard line, setting up another touchdown to Thomas that trimmed the deficit to 17-14. Forbath answered for Minnesota with a 49-yard field goal.

It was a victory for Minnesota Coach Mike Zimmer, who outwitted a close friend and another master tactician, Sean Payton. The coaches call plays for units that reflect their personalities — the Saints, freewheeling and aggressive, delight in running any type of play from any spot on the field, while the Vikings, brusque and direct, confound with effective coverage and a destructive pass-rush.

Across its last three games, Minnesota had allowed a total of 17 points. Those lockdowns came against Cincinnati, Green Bay and Chicago, who combined might have as much offensive talent as the Saints. All week the Vikings treated Brees, treated Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and Thomas, with respect but not deference, an attitude embodied by the All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

Surprised on Friday to field a second consecutive question about Brees, Rhodes nearly shrugged. Yes, Brees is good, his body language seemed to be saying, but have you seen the Vikings’ defense?

On the first four possessions, as New Orleans sought to establish a run-pass balance, Brees completed two of six passes — one to Ingram, one to Andrew Sendejo, who plays for Minnesota. That interception, grabbed while falling backward, turned into seven more points, for a 17-0 lead.

On that possession, Latavius Murray had a touchdown run nullified by penalty but, undeterred, scored five plays later. Compounding the Saints’ misery, a penalty negated a Ted Ginn Jr. touchdown catch and a tipped pass by Everson Griffen landed in the arms of Anthony Barr, stalling their best drive of the half.

Their first-half possessions, aside from a kneeldown, included three punts, two interceptions and a field goal. After halftime, New Orleans scored on four of its five drives. But somehow, crazily, improbably, it wasn’t enough.

Afterward, the Vikings ran around the field, in disbelief and celebration. The Saints, stunned, just shook hands. They had to clear the field after several minutes for the extra point, for which Vikings just knelt, completing an utterly mind-bending game.