MINNEAPOLIS – In giant white letters on signage throughout the stadium, and in purple print on white towels placed on each of the 66,000 seats at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Vikings made their intentions clear.
Bring it home, the signs said. Home, as in, to the Super Bowl, which will be played here in Minneapolis in three weeks.
The Vikings are now just one win away from becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl at home, after a stunning finished secured a 29-24 divisional-round win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs scored the game-winning 61-yard touchdown as time expired, as Saints safety Marcus Williams dove at his legs rather than trying for a tackle. After Diggs regained his balance, he had a clear path to the end zone, where he was mobbed by teammates while fireworks exploded inside the stadium.
Quarterback Case Keenum led fans in a “Skol” chant while waiting for 11 Saints players to return from the locker room in order to take a kneeldown on the extra point attempt.
It was a stunning end to a game the Saints appeared to have won in the closing seconds, following a 43-yard field goal by Saints kicker Wil Lutz with 25 seconds remaining. Lutz’ kick came 64 seconds after the Vikings took a 24-21 lead on a 53-yard field goal by Kai Forbath.
After Lutz’ kick, fans inside the Vikings new home stadium fell almost silent at the prospect of yet another playoff heartbreak. Two years ago, they stood frozen at the team’s temporary outdoor home at the University of Minnesota as kicker Blair Walsh shanked a 27-yard attempt that would have won a wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Fortunately for the Vikings, Keenum did not share the same sense of dread.
“I’m going to give someone a chance,” he said as he gathered his teammates in the huddle with 10 seconds remaining.
The play call relayed in from offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was predictable, one they run frequently during Saturday practices as they work through their late-game situations. It was called Seven Heaven, Diggs said, a play designed for a receiver on an underneath route, with the intention to make the quick catch and get out of bounds. Usually, though, the ball goes to receiver Jarius Wright, the Vikings’ possession receiver.
But this was Diggs’ moment.
He dropped the ball as he sprinted through the end zone and into the tunnel, where he collapsed under a pile of teammates. Wright retrieved the ball and returned it to Diggs when they got to the locker room, and Diggs and Keenum proudly showed it off as they posed for photographs captured on the receiver’s iPhone.
“It meant so much to see my quarterback believe in me in the last play of the game,” Diggs said.
The Vikings will travel to play the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game next week.
While it was the Vikings offense that delivered the late-game theatrics on Sunday, it was the defense that helped Minnesota build its 17-0 halftime lead. The Vikings intercepted Brees twice in the first half and held the Saints without a third-down conversion in the first two quarters.
Throughout the first half, each time Brees and the Saints offense seemed to find life, the Vikings defense found an answer – from safety Andrew Sendejo’s leaping interception on a deep pass in the first quarter, to a no-look deflection by defensive end Everson Griffen that wound up in the arms of linebacker Anthony Barr, to safety Harrison Smith’s third-down sack just before halftime that forced a long field goal attempt that was missed.
But this had been the Vikings’ winning formula for much of the season as the Vikings finished the year with the No. 1-ranked defense: bring pressure with Griffen and the rest of the hearty defensive front and play tight coverage in the secondary with Smith, Sendejo and cornerback Xavier Rhodes
But the Vikings defense showed cracks in the second half of the game, as Brees and the Saints found momentum after Sendejo knocked out of the game with a concussion on a hit by receiver Michael Thomas.
Thomas caught a touchdown one play later to spark a Saints rally, and scored again early in the fourth quarter to cut Minnesota’s lead to 17-14.
The Vikings managed to extend the lead back to 20-14 on their next possession on a 49-yard field goal by Kai Forbath, on a drive that featured two questionable challenges by Saints coach Sean Payton, who wanted to review a deep completion to Wright and if Keenum was down before a third-down incompletion. Payton lost both challenges – and two timeouts.
Those challenges and a blown trick play, when receiver Willie Snead failed to hit a pass to receiver Alvin Kamara, minutes later on New Orleans’ next drive will haunt the Saints into the postseason, but not as much as Diggs’ stunning score.