Best play brings biggest victory to Vikings

John Gilbert

Sports is nothing if not the perfect breeding ground for superlatives. We’ve probably heard them all, during the past five days since the Minnesota Vikings pulled off their stunning 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints on the final play of last Sunday’s NFC playoff semifinal.

Somebody said it was the greatest football game ever played. Somebody else said it was the greatest playoff game in NFL history. Somebody said Stefon Diggs made the greatest catch in football history. A disgruntled Green Bay Packers fan who lives in Chicago scoffed at it all and called it the worst defensive play in the history of football.

You folks got to experience all the superlatives close up. I had a unique experience, because I had to get to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, which started with a late-afternoon function Sunday afternoon. When I booked my flight, I carefully considered the possibilities. The Vikings were scheduled to play the 1 p.m. game, while Pittsburgh would play Jacksonville in the 3:30 game, so I studied the Delta Airlines schedule.

Because Delta has discontinued its nonstop service between Duluth and Detroit, the only place Delta flies now is from Duluth to Minneapolis. Then there’s a layover, and then a connecting flight from Minneapolis to Detroit. If I could catch a 5 a.m. flight out of Duluth, I could get to Minneapolis, easily get a connection that would get me to Detroit by 1 p.m. That would allow me to get to my hotel, near Detroit Metro Airport, in time to see the entire Vikings game before my two friends and I would drive to the Ford function at Cobo Hall.

All went well, until a few days before the game, and a couple of weeks after I had booked my flights, when it was announced that the Vikings-New Orleans game would be at 3:30. For a few days, both games were scheduled in direct conflict, then they moved the Pittsburgh-Jacksonville game to 1 p.m., while the Vikings-Saints game stayed at 3:30.

Detroit, however, is in the Eastern time zone, which meant the Vikings game would start at 4:30 my time. Incredible! My friends, one from Detroit and the other, David, from Ohio, are football fans, but David is a huge Green Bay Packers fan, and also a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan, but he knew the importance of the Vikings-Saints game, and he’s the one who located a nearby hotel with a lobby bar that, sure enough, had the game on a big-screen TV.

I had followed closely by cell-phone magic as the Vikings gained their 17-0 lead in the first half. Then Drew Brees led the Saints back, as we knew he would. He threw three touchdown passes in the second half, and as we watched, it got closer and closer. Since I had written Case Keenum’s praises since his first third-string start early in the season, I’ve stressed that he should be the No. 1 candidate for Most Valuable Player in the league, even while most of the Twin Cities media continued to belittle Keenum, and the Vikings chances with him at the helm.

Last week, I wrote that Keenum would be linked up in a fascinating duel with the great Drew Brees, but I picked the Vikings No. 1 defense to prevail and the Vikings to win. I also thought that would be the Vikings biggest hurdle, compared to either Philadelphia or Atlanta.

As my friends and I sat there, in the hotel bar near Cobo Hall, we had to drive to a couple other auto functions, including one for Volkswagen, which started at 7 p.m. One guy left for a different event, but David agreed to stay and watch the finish with me. That was good, because we were riding in his car. I mentioned to him that much as I’d love to see the Vikings win, if they lost to Drew Brees it would be the most painless way to lose - even though I’m not like normal Vikings fans who have seen so much disappointment at playoff time they assume a loss is inevitable.

But the closing sequence will live forever, and not just because of the final play.  Go back over it, and here is the incredible finish:

3:01 remaining, the Saints gain their first lead, at 21-20;

1:29 remainining, Vikings get a field goal to lead 23-21;

0:25 remaining, Saints vault into the lead at 24-23;

0:00 remaining, Stefon Diggs catches a perfectly placed pass from Case Keenum, breaks free, and completes a 61-yard touchdown play, and the Vikings win, 29-24.
Starting with only 25 seconds left, Keenum fired a pass that got the Vikings out to the 39, but at that left only 10 seconds. All that our fleeting hopes could wish for was a miraculous 30-yard pass play, and a chance for a long field goal that could win it. Turns out, that’s what Keenum was thinking, too. They have a play they’ve practiced regularly, called “7 Heaven.” It’s a sideline play, with two receivers, one short and one long, and if the receiver catches the pass, he can step out of bounds for the final desperation kick.

While I like Teddy Bridgewater, and I think Sam Bradford did a fantastic job filling in for him last year, the thing that was most evident to me when Case Keenum had to come in for the injured Bradford was that there was a spark throughout the team, a spell of cohesive lightning that was the perfect catalyst. Another thing that impressed me about Keenum is that when Bridgewater or Bradford came up to the line of scrimmage in a key situation and saw something they didn’t like in the defense, they could call an audible and change plays. Almost always, however, they chose a conservative alternative. Case Keenum has a mind that works the same as Brett Favre, or Russell Wilson of Seattle, or Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, or...yes, Drew Brees of the Saints. If there is the slimmest hope of swiping a victory, they’ll go for it. When Case Keenum has to change the play, he tends to go for it.

On “7 Heaven,” Keenum did what he does best, which is to launch a pass that may be into congestion, but seems to be thrown to a place where only his receiver can get to it. Russell Wilson does that with uncanny success for Seattle. Keenum launched this one up the right sideline, where Stefon Diggs was the long receiver and Adam Thielan was the short man. It was intended for Diggs, and he went up for it as New Orleans defensive back Marcus Williams, coming across toward the outside, went up with him.

The ball was just out of Williams reach, however, and Diggs caught it. As he was coming down a foot from the sideline, Williams tried to hurl his body at him for a tackle that could have ended the game. Meantime, Ken Crawley, the Saints defensive back who had been on Thielan, saw trouble and came hard up the sideline to help out. By absolute coincidence, Diggs landed somewhat awkwardly, which may have helped cause Williams to miss his tackle attempt, and instead he took out teammate Crawley perfectly.

Diggs came down, steadied himself for an instant, and in that instant his first instinct might have been to get out of bounds, knowing time was about to expire, and give kicker Kai Forbath one chance to win it with a long field goal. But as he regained full balance, Diggs also saw he had a corridor of nothing but turf between him and the end zone, so he took off. All the way. Watching on the big screen in downtown Detroit, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, as Diggs sprinted into the end zone and no time remained. As in 0:00.

The Vikings had pulled off the biggest play in their history to win the biggest victory of their existence, in my opinion. Vikings players were stunned, stupefied. Vikings fans were stunned, motionless.

I had a chance to do a short analysis and here were my favorite findings:
Drew Brees was 25 of 40 passing for 294 yards and three touchdowns, but two interceptions; Case Keenum was 25 of 40 passing for 318 yards on one touchdown - the 61-yard greatest touchdown play in Vikings history - and one interception.
But even though Keenum matched Brees exactly, nobody could have predicted the finish. Four lead changes in the final 3:01.

We showed up late at the Volkswagen event, and I was quite calm as I told several fellow auto journalists about the ending of the Vikings game. All were amazed. One of them said: “You know, this Vikings team could very well be a real team of destiny.”
Works for me. Philadelphia will be tough, but I think the Vikings will win, 31-14. Over on the other side, I also think Jacksonville, flushed with success after winning in Pittsburgh, will take out New England 24-20.

Destiny awaits, and it’s already made a substantial investment.