The field had mostly cleared and the purple pandemonium was calming down, when Case Keenum took the field for a ceremonial kneel down. As he waited for the Saints to come back from the locker room, he led 70,000 fans in the Vikings’ traditional SKOL chant, clapping his hands together over his head.
Moments before, Keenum and Stefon Diggs had authored the most memorable play of these NFL playoffs to date, the one everyone will be talking about after this divisional round of the playoffs, the victorious moment that will live forever in Vikings playoff lore.
Down by one point, on their own 39-yard line, with 10 seconds left, Keenum lofted a high-arcing pass down the left sideline. Diggs jumped and caught the ball just as Marcus Williams, the Saints’ rookie safety, lowered his head and went in for the hit. If Williams tackled Diggs in bounds, the game would’ve ended right there.
Diggs turned, stuck his foot in the ground, used his off hand to balance himself, and raced toward the end zone, with no one in front of him. When he crossed the goal line, the clock read: 00:00. It was the rare football buzzer-beater that didn’t involve a field goal. Diggs tossed his helmet aside and was mobbed by his teammates, the way a basketball team would after a game-winning shot. And Keenum sprinted up the field wildly, going from teammate to teammate, looking for someone to hug, the Jim Valvano of football. The Vikings had somehow beaten the Saints, 29-24, keeping the dream alive of playing Super Bowl 52 in its own stadium.
All season, pundits had been waiting for Keenum, the journeyman backup quarterback, to come back down to earth. After Sam Bradford got hurt in the season opener, Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-3 record and the two-seed in the NFC. But until that final play, it looked like this was the game when Keenum’s magic would run out.
In the second half, the Saints had bottled the Vikings’ run game and pressured Keenum, forcing him to throw the ball quickly. His first three drives of the second half ended like this: punt, interception, blocked punt. The interception was particularly bad, Keenum throwing the ball into double coverage off his back foot. The blocked punt was worse, and though Keenum had nothing to do with it, people would’ve found a way to blame him anyway.
All of this allowed the Saints to come back, after trailing 17-0 at halftime.
Drew Brees, of course, led the charge. But he was aided by his young weapons on the outside. Michael Thomas outdueled Xavier Rhodes to catch seven passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns, and Alvin Kamara, the presumptive offensive rookie of the year, caught a pretty 14-yard pass from Brees to give the Saints a 21-20 lead, with 3:01 to play.
The lead would change hands three more times after that. Adam Thielen made a spectacular catch over Marshon Lattimore for 24 yards, helping the Vikings kick a field goal. Then Brees drove 50 yards in 64 seconds to answer. The Vikings got the ball back, at their own 25-yard line, with 25 seconds left. Their only hope was that Keenum would make a play.
In the end, he did. Now the Vikings move on to the NFC championship game, where they’ll face Nick Foles and the Eagles. Back in September, who would’ve guessed that these would be the last four quarterbacks standing: Brady, Bortles, Foles, and Keenum? Or that Keenum would have as good a chance as any of them of winning it all?
It helps, too, that Keenum apparently has luck on his side. For as much as people will talk about Keenum-to-Diggs, they’ll also talk about Williams’ whiffed tackle. All season the Saints had relied on rookies like Williams and Kamara and Lattimore, and one missed play by one of those rookies ended up being their downfall. One play. That was the difference between the Vikings and the Saints on Sunday, and the difference between Keenum, the goat, and Keenum, the hero.
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