Finishing off a weekend of good divisional action was always going to be tough but somehow the Vikings Saints matchup managed to top them all for quality, skill and nail-biting tension. The end of the game was an absolute fairy tale for Vikings fans but let’s start at the beginning of a game that was truly one of two different halves.
The first half was headlined by the quality of the Minnesota Vikings as a team. On offence they were efficient, running the ball hard into the line, offensive line blocking well too allow both the run game and pass game to have their moment and the passing game doing just enough to keep the Saints off balance. The play that gave the Vikings the lead was a perfect example of their cohesiveness. Case Keenum tossed the ball left to Jerrick McKinnon who was given a perfect lane by Reily Reiff’s block to take the ball 14 yards for a touchdown. For their second score the Vikings receivers took advantage of Ken Crawley’s aggressiveness to get two pass interference penalties, the second was highly dubious. Realistically it should have been 14-0 with 1st and goal from the six but the Vikings could only manage a field goal. The third score, a Latavius Murray one yard dive, was another case of a balanced structured offence as they built a solid drive down the field to go 17-0 in the lead.
The real story of the first half though was the sheer quality of the Vikings defence. They squeezed and stifled a very good Saints offence that had as many first downs in the 1st quarter as Drew Brees threw interceptions. The second quarter the Saints managed to find some traction but another Drew Brees interception and a missed field goal by Will Lutz kept them scoreless at the end of the first half. The Vikings defence kept the Saints running game in check and despite only having one sack of Brees in the first they constantly got pressure on him and forced him to hurry throws.
The Saints with two offensive wizards in Brees and Sean Peyton were always going to make adjustments and start to roll and in the second half that is exactly what they did. It still took them until there was just one minute on the clock in the 3rd quarter to get on the board but Brees started finding the time to hit his receiver which culminated in a 14-yard strike to Michael Thomas to open their account. Within three minutes they had a second touchdown with Brees and Thomas combining for a second time to cut the lead to 17-14.
With the score at 20-14 the Saints may have called one of the most ridiculous plays of the day. Their offence had marched on the Vikings twice in a row and for some reason Brees audibled to a throw on 3rd & 1. Now normally that would be fine and I actively encourage Drew Brees to throw the ball as much as possible but this time he audibled to a throw by Willie Snead. I have no issues with the play and the design was genius with Snead taking a pitch from Brees and then trying to hit a wide open Kamara who had run a wheel route from the back field. The issue here is that with Brees throwing in that situation I would have made the odds of converting close to 70% whereas with Snead it is probably 50/50 at best and unfortunately Snead overthrew Kamara and the Saints punted. Had the Saints been constantly stifling the Vikings offence this play and the situation would have been fine but the only reason it wasn’t 26-14 at this time was because of missed opportunities by the Vikings.
In the end the gamble actually paid off for the Saints as the Vikings stalled at their 40 and then on the ensuing punt as many as three rushers got in the punters face, including a third string QB, with one of them getting a hand to the punt screw-balling it in the air to give the Saints great field position. Four plays later Brees hit Kamara in the endzone to take the lead 21-20.
The teams then exchanged field goals and it looked as if Will Lutz had given the Saints the victory with his kick making it 24-23 with just 25 seconds remaining. Minnesota still had two timeouts and they immediately hit a 19 yard in cut to get them to their own 40. Two incompletions later and it was 3rd & 10 with 14 seconds left. At this point they had at best two passes to get into field goal range and on at least one of them they needed the receiver to get out of bounds. What happened next was incredible. Keenum sent Diggs down the field and hit him on his own in what would be makeable field goal range. As Diggs came down the Saints defender tried to jar the ball lose but he whiffed completely allowing Diggs to hit the ground on his feet and run the ball into the endzone for the most unlikely of moments.
It was an incredible end to a superb weekend of football and now we head to an NFC championship game between two defence dominated teams that should another nail biter.
This guest piece was written by Ben Rolfe. Ben is a New England Patriots fan and can be found on Twitter at @BenRolfe15.