The “Minneapolis Miracle” stole the show on Sunday, but all hands – and feet – were on deck throughout the afternoon to make the Vikings walk-off win a possibility.
Minnesota got its run game going early with the help of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
After the Vikings defense forced a Saints three-and-punt on the opening drive, Minnesota took over on offense, and the running backs accounted for seven of the drive’s eight plays. Murray carried the ball on the first four snaps, rushing for 14 yards. McKinnon added a carry for three yards, followed by a 22-yard catch by receiver Jarius Wright.
Then on first-and-10 from the Saints 16, Murray took the handoff and gained two yards. On the following play, Keenum tossed the ball to McKinnon in the backfield, and he took off running toward the left sideline. Blocks by Adam Thielen, David Morgan and Riley Reiff kept a lane open for McKinnon, who made a smooth landing into the end zone.
“Just wide open, man, and I have big Riley Reiff out there leading the way,” McKinnon said after the game. “I told him earlier in the week, ‘That play’s going to be me and you.’ He got the block, and I cut right off of him – he made it easy for me.
“We’ve run it before, and [Stefon Diggs] got a lot of attention; everybody went that way, and we came up with the touchdown,” McKinnon added. “It was a great call by [Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur].”
Following the score, McKinnon, whose nickname is “Jet,” knelt on his knees and then took off with the help of Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein posing as air traffic controllers.
The results of Minnesota’s next two series were a 20-yard field goal and a punt, respectively. The Vikings fourth possession of the afternoon started at their own 42 after safety Andrew Sendejo picked off a deep pass by Drew Brees.
The Vikings made the most of the opportunity, driving down the field and scored their second touchdown of the day, this time when Murray sniffed out the end zone from a yard out.
Minnesota recorded 56 rushing yards, all between the pair of backs, allowing the Vikings to control the clock for 17:34 of the first half, compared to the Saints’ 12:26.
“I thought we started extremely fast,” Jeremiah Sirles said of Minnesota’s run game. “And that’s something, with how well our defense plays … with us being able to run the ball and eat up clock and keep offenses off the field – I mean, you never want to give Drew Brees any time on the field. So keeping him off the field was a big-time point of what to do, and I thought we executed that well.”
The Vikings struggled a bit more to run the ball in the second half but still gained ground when needed.
Early in the third quarter, Minnesota needed less than a yard on third down and handed off to C.J. Ham, who pushed for inches but ended up getting a lot more. The fullback lowered his helmet and surged forward, suddenly picking up seven yards and moving the ball into Saints territory.
“I wish I would have kept my legs turning a little more,” Ham said. “It was one of those things where there was no hole, so I put my head down because I’ve got to get this 1 yard, and as I put my head down, the hole just opened straight up, so I definitely wish I could take that part of it back, but I was glad to get the first down and get the 7 yards.”
On the fourth-quarter drive that was capped by Kai Forbath kicking a 53-yard field goal to sustain the Vikings chances, McKinnon picked up two yards on a third-and-1 to keep the offense moving down the field.
The Vikings finished the day with 95 yards rushing on 29 attempts, including a 4-yard scramble by Keenum to set up McKinnon’s third-down conversion. It was the fourth-lowest rushing total by Minnesota on the season, but it was effective, nonetheless.
“It tells us that every yard counts,” Ham said. “You get the 1-yard gain, 2-yard gain, bust off 10 yards, every single yard counts, and the playoffs are all about field position. All the yards you can get are going to help your team.”
McKinnon said the Vikings were efficient and “came out hot” in the first half before entering the second half “a little flat” but added that they knew it would be a tough outing against the talented Saints team.
“That’s what playoff football is about – it’s playing with the best of the best,” McKinnon said.
“I’m just thankful to be part of this team,” McKinnon added. “We’ve been fighting all year. We’ve had our shares of ups and downs, but we fought through it. Everybody believed in each other, we came to work every day, and today we got another week – it was a blessing.”