It started easy and almost ended terrifying for the home team, but the result was the same: with a magnificent 61-yard final-play touchdown on a pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs, the Minnesota Vikings held off the New Orleans Saints 29-24 in the final, and best, playoff game of the NFL’s divisional playoff weekend.
Early on, this one looked over and done; Minnesota scored an effortless 17 points in the first quarter, and New Orleans couldn’t manage a third-down conversion. Drew Brees threw for a mere 118 yards and surrendered two interceptions in the first half, and the Saints looked lost, floundering, and 30 minutes from returning home in disgrace.
But then New Orleans remembered it had two Pro Bowlers at running back, a powerful clampdown defense, and Brees at quarterback, and the game changed in a hurry. The key sequence came within a three-minute, nine-second slice of game clock at the end of the third quarter, when Brees found Michael Thomas twice in the end zone to cut an impenetrable 17-point lead to a suddenly fragile three-point one.
The Minnesota crowd, so engaged and so ready to see its hometown Vikes returning for one more game in the Super Bowl, began to clench up, and a long field goal to extend the lead to six points didn’t help matters. Minnesota’s offense stalled, with Keenum suddenly reverting to mortal status and Minnesota’s own rushing duo of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray finding no holes in the New Orleans line. Passes to Diggs and Adam Thielen sailed high, drives stalled, and then came the game’s most important play to that point: a blocked kick that gave New Orleans the ball at Minnesota’s 41. Four plays later, Brees found Alvin Kamara in the end zone to give New Orleans its first lead with 3:01 remaining.
Minnesota marched its way down the field to give Kai Forbath a shot at a 53-yard touchdown with 1:29 remaining, and — in a sharp departure from recent kick-related Minnesota postseason failures —Forbath drilled the kick to give Minnesota a two-point lead. Brees had 89 seconds to get the ball into field-goal range, and on fourth-and-10 from the Minnesota 46, he found Willie Snead for 13 yards. That set up a Wil Lutz field goal from 43 yards out with 29 seconds remaining, and he drilled it, again putting New Orleans up by a point.
Minnesota’s final, floundering drive looked as dead as the Vikings’ hopes, but with 10 seconds remaining, Keenum found Diggs for a 61-yard breakaway touchdown and the victory as time expired. (Officials said that the teams technically needed to kick the extra point to make the game official, even though most of the Saints had left the field. The Vikings took a knee rather than kick.)
Minnesota now heads to Philadelphia to play the surprisingly resilient Eagles. Even though Philadelphia handled Atlanta well enough Saturday night, the Vikings will present an entirely different level of challenge.
The road for Minnesota to play a Super Bowl at home stretches wide open.
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