A few minutes before the Minnesota Vikings made history, Case Keenum was on the sidelines with his head down. He rocked back and forth in frustration and repeatedly took his hat on and off.
But when he took the field, the Vikings’ quarterback decided that his incredible run wasn’t going to end. Keenum, who has gone from a journeyman, one-year-deal, $2 million quarterback to beating Drew Brees in the playoffs over the course of one year, gathered his players in the huddle and told them he’d give somebody a chance to make a play.
”There’s no nerves at that point, we’re just fighting and clawing and scratching and just trying to get the ball downfield,” Keenum said.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph had the best view of Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown that gave the Vikings a 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints as time ran out.
“I was the first to the flat, so I saw him go up to make the catch, I knew we had a chance,” he said. “They had two guys over there and the first guy grabbed me right away, so we had two-on-two with two guys that could go up and make a play. Case told the guys in the huddle that he was going to give somebody a chance. It’s a play that we practice all the time for situations like that. I can’t say it’s ever ended that way.”
The Vikings landed in a tough spot after Brees led a go-ahead drive to put the Vikings down by one point with under 30 seconds remaining. After Keenum hit Diggs to move the ball to the 39-yard line, the Vikings’ quarterback threw several off-target passes, setting up third-and-10 with 10 seconds left, zero timeouts.
“I knew we would at least get a chunk and at least have a chance to get a field goal to win the game,” Rudolph said. “When he went to go make the catch, I saw the safety coming in to hit him low and all I could think was, ‘don’t hit him and have him fall right there.’”
Safety Marcus Williams lunged at Diggs. In the locker room after the game, five players stood at their lockers, still marveling at the safety’s miscue. One player recreated it several times, then just shrugged his shoulders, bewildered.
“I saw him go up and I was like, ‘oh he had a chance to catch it,” Keenum said. “He caught it and I’m like, ‘oh he’s got a chance to go out of bounds.’ Like, get out of bounds. He kind of fell back in bounds…he almost fell over and I couldn’t believe what was happening.. I really couldn’t. It was awesome.”
”It’s about time,” Rudolph said, still baffled by what he’d just seen.
Before Diggs’ game-winning touchdown to send the Vikings to Philadelphia for the NFC championship game, defensive players were distraught on the sideline.
Following Keenum’s first go-ahead drive, Brees had gone full legend. Somehow he found gaps in the Vikings’ defense that didn’t exist. One throw came on the move as Ben Gedeon dove just a second late to put New Orleans on Minnesota’s side of the ball. Then the future Hall of Famer guided a pass perfectly into an open space for a first down on fourth-and-six.
But the defense stuffed a run on third-and-1 give give their offense one shot to play hero. As several plays went by and there was only a few ticks left on the clock, the No. 1 defense in the NFL assumed they’d come up short when it mattered most.
“I was disappointed, man,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “I felt like we let the fans down again and let each other down. But we didn’t. Everybody deserves it. This city deserves it, this state, these fans deserve it. We worked so hard for this.”
At the moment Diggs made the catch, Barr was too upset to watch.
“I honestly didn’t even see it, my head was kind of down, I was feeling sorry for myself,” Barr said. “I heard the crowd go crazy and didn’t think much of it, then I saw Diggs running down the sideline and I didn’t think it was real. I figured it was going to get called back, or he stepped out of bounds or something. I guess not.”
“I didn’t believe it,” Barr added. “I didn’t know that could happen. I didn’t understand. How does that happen? I don’t know.”
When Diggs hit the end zone, ripped off his helmet and threw it with the clock reading 0:00, Linval Joseph was reflecting on the team’s mentality.
”That moment I’m just thinking that, man, God is good,” Joseph said. “You just gotta believe, man. Twenty-five seconds, nobody is giving us a chance and we’re there just believing…that was a hell of a play.”
Rookie center Pat Elflein looked up from his block to see Diggs running free. For most players on the Vikings’ roster, the sting of 2015 was still thee . For Elflein, his first impression of Vikings playoff football was one of the wildest playoff endings the NFL has ever seen.
“No doubt the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of, start to finish, it’s just nuts,” Elflein said.
It would come as no surprise to those on the Vikings’ roster that safety Harrison Smith was already thinking about Philadelphia.
”I was just talking to Terence [Newman], and, not to cheapen it, but we have to play next week so we’ve gotta get over it quick,” Smith said.