MINNEAPOLIS — The purple clad ranks were still in their seats, although for what no one was quite sure. A couple plays earlier they’d tried to muster up a “Skol” clap and chant but it petered out. Then there was a “Let’s Go Vikings” but it didn’t last.
The scoreboard read New Orleans 24, Minnesota 23 with 10 seconds left. The Vikings had blown leads of 17-0 and, most painfully, 23-21, and now Case Keenum was trying to orchestrate some kind of miracle but he was mostly throwing ducks around U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings were at their own 39. Too far for a Hail Mary, let alone a field goal. This is what failure in progress seemingly looked like.
If 66,000 or so Vikings fans seemed resolved to defeat, no one could blame them. They remained anyway. Maybe because it was cold outside. Maybe because this had been such a likeable team. Maybe because this is what you do as a Minnesota fan, you watch disasters unfold. Might as well face reality. It’ll toughen the heart, or something.
Maybe a few still believed, still believed the Vikings could deliver some long pass play, get out of bounds and boot a field goal to advance to the NFC championship game against Philadelphia. Maybe.
There was no earthly reason to do so, though.
In the huddle Keenum called “Seven Heaven,” which they’d already run twice that game and once that possession. Only this time, with a big chunk needed, he assumed he’d need to throw it to the high receiver, in this case a daring throw to Stefon Diggs.
The Vikings have practiced Seven Heaven “a million times” this year, receiver Jarius Wright said. That was the good news. The bad? How often does Diggs catch it when it’s thrown to him?
“Never,” Wright said. “He never gets it.”
Keenum is an undrafted, twice-waived, once-traded former practice player who began his career by going 0-8 as a starter. Diggs is an undersized former fifth-round pick who wasn’t even activated for the first three games of his career. They play for a franchise where “people say we are going to blow it,” Diggs said.
And they were blowing it. At that point, what the heck, right? There were no good options. The Saints were in outside zone coverage, “protecting the sidelines,” coach Sean Payton said.
Keenum saw the play develop and saw a sliver of daylight for Diggs along the right sideline. It wasn’t much.
He stepped up in the pocket and threw it from his own 31. It went 35 yards in the air. The ball was high but Diggs rose up for it. There was, for an instant, a hush, like everyone was calculating time and distance. Diggs was going to catch it. He was going to land at about the Saints 34. That alone would be incredible. Even then he needed to get out of bounds to stop the clock. And doing that would still require a 51-yard field goal. Anything else and the game is over, though. Vikings lose. Again.
Stefon Diggs knew it. He also knew, or thought he knew, he was about to get clocked by Saints safety Marcus Williams.
“I was preparing for contact,” Diggs said. He was trying to figure out how he could somehow contort his body and land out of bounds.
Only there was no contact. “Nobody touched me,” Diggs said.
Williams didn’t want to commit pass interference is how the Saints explained it. He mistimed and read the throw and thought hitting Diggs might cause that. As such, he went both low and then to the side, which was the worst possible decision. Had he either blasted him or just sat back, let Diggs land, and then wrapped him up, the Saints win. Instead he avoided Diggs altogether.
“I knew the situation,” Williams said. “You have to make sure you make the play.”
He didn’t make the play. He didn’t make any play, actually.
“The play happened how it happened,” Williams said. “You all saw it.”
“The safety missed, whiffed, whatever you want to call it,” said Vikings defensive lineman Linval Joseph, who was watching from the sideline.
“It was a timing decision, obviously,” Payton said. “He’d like to have that back.”
This was now a play like no one had ever seen. The safety provided no safety. He even crashed into a teammate, cornerback Ken Crawley, who was the only Saint player that might have been able to catch Stefon Diggs. Now he was blocked by his own man.
Diggs landed off balance but used his hand to remain upright. There were no Saints to stop him. He was behind the defense on a play where the defense’s top priority was not letting anyone get behind it.
“I couldn’t believe it, really,” Diggs said.
No one could. All that was left was for a guy with 4.4 speed to race into history. He did.
Minnesota 29, New Orleans 24. Game Over.
Vikings players who were watching from the sideline began running to the end zone to celebrate. Others who didn’t have such a view were trying to figure out what occurred. It was mass confusion.
“All of a sudden, everybody started screaming,” fullback C.J. Ham said. “I looked up at the jumbotron and was lost for words.”
Diggs was mobbed, tackled and piled upon. He couldn’t catch his breath.
It felt great.
“They all laid on me,” Diggs said. “I almost passed out. There are some heavy guys and I don’t weigh that much.”
Above Stefon Diggs, U.S. Bank Stadium felt like it was going to die, but this time for a different reason. Of joy. Or shock. Or something new. It was pandemonium; bouncing and screaming and hugging and, yes, crying. It was also a state of disbelief. It was difficult for anyone to imagine what just happened, happened.
How? Why? Impossible. This is how the Vikings lose games. The four Super Bowl losses from way back? The missed 38-yard field goal to put the Falcons away in ’98? The overtime NFC title game defeat to the Saints in ’09? The blown 27-yard field goal against Seattle in ’15? Everything else on the long list of gut-punch Vikings moments?
This isn’t how they win them.
“People have a way of saying history repeats itself,” Diggs said. “I guess this is not one of those cases.”
“Awesome,” owner Ziggy Wilf kept saying in his box, too dumbfounded to process it all. He was no different 45 minutes later, wandering the Vikings dressing room where everyone was huddling up, telling each other what they saw and comparing notes. “All I can say is awesome. This team, this is a special team.”
This team, yes. This town, too. This time, especially.
The Super Bowl will be played here in a couple weeks. The Vikings are now just one victory in Philadelphia from playing in it, the first time in NFL history a team gets to compete for the title in its own stadium. Technically, the Vikings will be the “road” team, but the NFL would allow them to use their locker room and the stands will be a majority of purple, with “Skol” chants breaking out at the proper time.
It would be a scene like no other. A Super Bowl like no other. Maybe something magical like that requires something impossible like this.
Maybe it requires a near silent, mostly solemn stadium, a beaten down fan base loyally standing and watching another funeral, only to wind up walking out of the stadium and into the cold Upper Midwest air chanting, “Bring It Home,” a plea for one more “home” game, for one more chance to taste victory, for one more reward for keeping the faith.
Maybe it requires the very participants of the play to struggle to explain it.
“I just threw it, man,” Keenum said, “and he just caught it and he ran into the end zone.”
The Vikings, man.
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