MINNEAPOLIS — The ending was both unbelievable and a reality.
Case Keenum connected with Stefon Diggs, Saints safety Marcus Williams missed, and the receiver was off to the races.
The 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown gave the Vikings franchise, which coincidentally played its first season in 1961, a 29-24 victory over the Saints on the game’s final play in the first playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
It also was the first time an NFL playoff game ended with a touchdown on the game’s final play.
The best thing about it is that it could be just the start.
Minnesota will face Philadelphia at 5:40 p.m. (CT) Sunday in the NFC Championship, and the winner of that game will play in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4.
“The biggest thing is this is just the beginning,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “This isn’t the end. This is great, don’t get me wrong.
“We should celebrate this. We should enjoy this,” Rudolph added. “It’s hard to win playoff games. There’s a lot of guys in this locker room, myself included, that it’s our first playoff win, but it’s just the beginning. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, and it would be a shame to let something like that go to waste by not showing up.”
Rudolph started the play in a bunch formation with Diggs and Jarius Wright. He ran a short route to the flat and saw that Diggs and Thielen had a 2-on-2 matchup.
“When he went up to make the catch, and I saw him make the catch, I saw the safety come in to hit him low, all I could think was don’t hit him and have him fall right there,” Rudolph said. “If he falls right there, that’s it. When he came down and kept his balance and took off running, I knew there was nobody left. I knew I wasn’t going to catch him, but I was going to get there as fast as I could to celebrate with him.”
Rudolph added, “It’s about time” the Vikings were able to celebrate a victory like this.
“After what this organization has been through, what we as a group have been through when you think back to the last time we were in the playoffs and just rewind over the last two years, all of the injuries and adversity we faced last year,” Rudolph said. “You just look at the first four weeks of our season this year, 2-2, losing our starting quarterback and our starting running back.
“For a lot of people, it just could have been, ‘Here it goes again. It’s just not meant to be.’ But that’s not this group of men. It’s not the leadership we have, and all we know is to fight. They say it all the time, ‘Fight for 60 minutes, and as long as we do that, you look up, and you’ll be happy.’ ”
Now, the Vikings want to become the first team to participate in a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Longest-tenured Viking Brian Robison, who is in his 11th season and is the only Vikings player remaining from the 2009 team that made the NFC Championship, said Minnesota doesn’t want to let the miracle ending go to waste.
“It’s huge for this franchise, it’s huge for our fan base, but if we don’t go win next week, it’s all for naught,” Robison said. “At the end of the day, we’re not here to win playoff games. We’re here to win championships. This fan base, this organization is thoroughly in need of winning one.”
Forbath part of four scores in 3:01
The touchdown was part of a wild finish that included four scores in the final 3:01.
New Orleans took its first lead, 21-20, on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Alvin Kamara to capitalize on a drive that started at the Minnesota 40-yard line after a punt block.
The Vikings responded with a 53-yard field goal by Kai Forbath after driving 40 yards on nine plays in just 1:32.
“I was trying to just tell myself, it’s just like practice,” Forbath said. “I’ve made that kick plenty of times. Don’t change anything – I didn’t want to have any regrets after it. Just swing normal.”
The kick, which had plenty to spare against Forbath’s former team, gave Minnesota a 23-21 lead with 1:29 remaining. He also was successful on kicks of 20 and 49 yards.
“That’s Kai being Kai,” Diggs said. “It’s funny because for Kai to drain one on his old team, it’s big. You kind of see that as players, when guys used to play somewhere else and they play their old team, they play pretty well. It was a special moment, especially for us. At that point in the game, we went up.”
The problem, however, was that future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees had heated up. After being limited to 8-of-18 passing with two interceptions in the first half, Brees had thrown three touchdowns was approaching 250 yards.
Brees moved the Saints to the Minnesota 24, and the Saints faced third-and-1. After nine consecutive throws by Brees, New Orleans turned to rookie Alvin Kamara, who was stuffed for a loss of 1.
The Saints were happy to have a 43-yard field goal by Wil Lutz and a 24-23 lead with 25 seconds remaining against a Vikings defense that was the best in the NFL in 2017 at keeping points off the scoreboard.
“[We] felt that we let the fans down and let the city down again and let each other down, but we didn’t,” said Anthony Barr who hadn’t forgotten his only previous playoff game, a 10-9 heartbreaker to Seattle two years ago. “We came out victorious. This city deserves it, this state deserves it, our fans deserve it and we deserve. We work so hard for this, but we’ve got a ways to go, and we’re not done yet.”
More important, however, was that Minnesota’s defense left time on the clock, and every player on the Vikings never stopped believing, even with what computers said was a 2.6-percent chance of winning when the ball was snapped.
“The character in our locker room, the time that we’ve put in, the fight in each and every guy,” Rudolph said. “When you have 11 guys out there that are willing to fight until the dire end, you’ll always have a chance. I didn’t necessarily see it ending that way. I knew we had a chance to get a chunk and hopefully get a field goal chance to win it, and when he turned and ran, I couldn’t believe it.”
Pair of interceptions
The Vikings defense was particularly dominant in the first half.
The Saints first six possessions were: punt, punt, punt, interception, interception, missed field goal.
New Orleans totaled 149 net yards and was 0-for-4 on third downs against Minnesota’s top-ranked third-down defense in the first half.
Andrew Sendejo nabbed the first interception on a deep pass down the middle by Brees, and Barr corralled a pass that was batted at the line of scrimmage by Everson Griffen.
Barr returned his interception 18 yards before he was taken down with a horse-collar tackle by Terron Armstead.
Brees finished 25-of-40 passing for 294 yards with a passer rating of 89.0.
“We started off hot. We know they’re a good team, though,” Kendricks said. “We knew they were going to battle back. They’re in a tough [environment]. Our crowd is crazy. It’s tough to play here. They settled down and started making plays, but we’ve got to be better.”
View game action images as the Vikings take on the Saints in the first-ever playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium
3rd-down success continues
The Vikings allowed the Saints to convert just 2-of-9 third downs. Minnesota’s offense converted 10 of 17, including the final touchdown.
Minnesota allowed opponents to convert just 23 of 99 third downs in regular-season home games and at a total rate of 25.2 percent, which set a new NFL record (stat first tracked in 1991).
The Saints converted just two of five third-and-1s.
The Vikings stuffed a run by Mark Ingram in the first quarter, but they allowed a sneak by Brees in the third quarter. Brees then followed with a 5-yard pass five plays later to move the chains again and set up the first touchdown for the Saints.
New Orleans turned to trickery in the fourth quarter, with Brees lateralling the ball to Snead, but the receiver’s pass toward Kamara was incomplete.
The Vikings stuffed Kamara on a run up the middle with 29 seconds remaining.