Associated Press

Vikings shock Saints with miraculous last-second touchdown, advance to NFC championship game

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Vikings shock Saints with miraculous last-second touchdown, advance to NFC championship game

MINNEAPOLIS -- As Case Keenum convened the Minnesota huddle with 10 seconds left, the situation staring down the Vikings was as simple as it was daunting.

With the go-ahead field goal by the New Orleans Saints that silenced this deafening stadium still fresh in the air, the Vikings were well beyond any moment of anxiety. All that was left for Keenum to do on that last snap was to throw the ball up like he used to do in his Texas backyards and hope for the best.

Keenum completed his last-ditch heave near the sideline Sunday on the game's final play to Stefon Diggs, who slithered away from the Saints for a 61-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 29-24 victory and a spot in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia.

"At that point, I'm just a kid throwing a football to another big kid," Keenum said with a smile, "and he just runs and scores."

One more win, against the Eagles, and the Vikings will become the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their home turf. Instead of the usual win-or-go-home stakes, they're in a win-and-go-home situation.

"It never ends that way," Diggs said. "Usually, it's reality. It's life. So things go and you walk home and worry it about tomorrow."

Instead, Drew Brees and the Saints were the ones trudging off the field in defeat.

"We're still a bit shell-shocked after what happened there at the end," said Brees, who steered the Saints in position for Wil Lutz's 43-yard kick with 25 seconds remaining that punctuating a forceful rally from a 17-point deficit that stood until 1:16 was left in the third quarter.

The field goal was set up by a fourth-and-10 completion by Brees to Willie Snead for 13 yards to the Minnesota 33 with 40 seconds left. Brees connected with Michael Thomas for two of his three touchdown passes in a span of 3:09 that spilled into the fourth quarter. The second score was set up at the Minnesota 40 by an interception by Marcus Williams, when an off-balance throw into traffic by Keenum served as his one costly moment of recklessness, a "bonehead play," as he put it.

Keenum settled back in. He guided the Vikings to two more field goals by Kai Forbath, including a 53-yarder with 1:29 left that was his third of the game against his former team and gave them their lead back after a blocked punt by George Johnson had set up the Saints for a touchdown pass by Brees to Alvin Kamara.

Then came the play that put Keenum and Diggs in permanent rotation on the NFL's all-time highlight reels.

"We knew there was still a possibility, still some hope," Keenum said.

This wasn't quite Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 playoffs, but these Vikings are on some kind of special path after turning to Keenum in the second game of the season after original starter Sam Bradford was sidelined by a knee injury.

The Vikings were out of timeouts and nearly out of options when Keenum dropped back from his 39 and threw high into a crowd. Diggs jumped in front of Williams, who rolled awkwardly underneath Diggs during an ill-fated attempt at making a low tackle.

Devastatingly for the Saints, nobody was behind him in the secondary, as Diggs made sure to note right before he made the break on his route during the play the Vikings, believe it or not, call "Seven Heaven."

Diggs kept his balance as he landed, kept his feet in bounds and kept on running untouched into the end zone as the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium erupted with euphoria. Keenum raced around the field, looking for anyone to hug.

"I'm shocked. I don't know what else to say. This is the first time ever I'm out of words," Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said.

Keenum, the undrafted and undersized all-time leading passer in NCAA history who was making his first career playoff start and has long looked up to Brees, was having a hard time finding the words to describe the experience. He finished with 318 yards, going 25 for 40, with Diggs catching 137 yards on six catches.

"A heck of a game, wasn't it?" head coach Mike Zimmer said. "And the good guys won."

Diggs was still in full uniform when he took the podium for his postgame interview, the ball from the winning catch resting safely in front of him on the lectern.

"It's plays like this that you dream about your whole life," he said, "and it finally happens."

PICKED OFF

Brees saw his 13th career postseason game end in a crushing final moment, his 25-for-40 performance for 294 yards tainted a bit by two interceptions before halftime. One came on a leaping grab by safety Andrew Sendejo , the other off a tip by Griffen that landed in Anthony Barr's arms at the Minnesota 10-yard line midway through the third quarter.

FIRST-HALF FORCE

The Vikings came roaring out of their first-round bye, forcing punts by the Saints on their first three possessions and moving 55 yards in eight plays for a touchdown run by Jerick McKinnon on their first drive. Aided by two pass interference calls on Ken Crawley for 54 yards, the Vikings reached the 1-yard line before settling for a short field goal on the next possession. They pushed the lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter when Latavius Murray plowed in from the 1-yard line.

"The Vikings had a phenomenal game plan," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.

The only other time the Saints went scoreless in the first half of a postseason game was five years ago. They fell behind 16-0 at Seattle in the divisional round and lost 23-15 to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

SENDEJO DOWN

The first touchdown to Thomas came one play after he leveled Sendejo with a jarring blindside block, sending Sendejo to the sideline for concussion evaluation and reigniting the crowd when the flag that was initially thrown was waved off.

UP NEXT

Saints: head home with a 1-5 record on the road in the playoffs under Payton, with a promising group of young players but some uncertainty around how much longer Brees, who will turn 39 on Monday, will stick around.

"I'm more toward the end of my career than I am at the beginning, I know that," Brees said. "That's all I'll divulge."

Vikings: move on to Philadelphia for the 10th championship game appearance in franchise history, the fifth in the last 30 years. They won the first four, losing in the Super Bowl each time.

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Jaguars stun Steelers 45-42 to earn trip to AFC title game

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Jaguars stun Steelers 45-42 to earn trip to AFC title game

PITTSBURGH -- The Jacksonville Jaguars heard the chatter, read the tweets and Instagram posts. And they got a little confused.

Why were the Pittsburgh Steelers talking about the New England Patriots? Didn't they have to face the Jaguars first before reaching a rematch with the Super Bowl champions?

"I don't know if they misread the schedule or didn't play us this week, but they didn't acknowledge us at all," Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack said. "And we didn't take that too kindly."

Not at all. That shouldn't be a problem going forward.

The Jaguars, yes the Jaguars, have the NFL's full attention now. A trip to Foxborough on the horizon, too.

Dominant at the start and resilient at the finish, Jacksonville stunned the Steelers 45-42 on Sunday to advance to the AFC title game for the third time in franchise history and maybe, finally, earn a bit of respect.

Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three scores . Embattled quarterback Blake Bortles added 214 yards passing and a pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown as the third-seeded Jaguars (12-6) beat the second-seeded Steelers (13-4) at Heinz Field for the second time in three months.

The victory in October served notice Jacksonville was ready to put a decade of losing firmly behind. This one sent an even bigger message: overlook the Jaguars at your own peril, something Pittsburgh appeared to do in the run-up. Coach Mike Tomlin hinted at facing the Patriots twice back in December. Running back Le'Veon Bell posted on Twitter about the pair of "round 2s" the Steelers will face in coming weeks.

Turns out, one rematch is all the Steelers will get.

"We knew we had this team's number," Jacksonville safety Barry Church said. "All we did was feed on the fuel that everybody was providing, the media, everybody was talking about how they're going to run through us, it's not going to be like last (time). Blake Bortles this. Blake Bortles that. all he did was dominate their defense."

A week removed from an ugly performance in a wild-card round win over Buffalo in which he passed for 87 yards and struggled with the easiest of throws, Bortles went 14 of 26 for a touchdown without an interception. He ran for 35 more and wasn't sacked by a defense that led the NFL and set a franchise record with 55 during the season. Jacksonville's 45 points tied the most ever allowed by the Steelers in the playoffs.

Not bad for an offense that at times simply appeared along for the ride as the NFL's top defense carried the load.

"Blake Bortles has always been criticized," Fournette said. "It is different now. He has guys that have his back, especially me."

Certainly looked it as Fournette scored two first-quarter touchdowns. The Jaguars built a 21-point lead and responded whenever the Steelers rallied to get within one score.

"The guys played with confidence all day long," Bortles said. "Obviously, what they have on their side of the ball, it's a good team. We know they got a good offense. We knew we were going to have to be efficient, hold on to the ball for a little bit, so we did it."

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and set a franchise record with five touchdown passes, but was also intercepted once and had a fumble returned for a score. All-Pro Antonio Brown caught seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns in his return from a left calf injury. Bell had 155 yards of total offense and two scores.

But Pittsburgh's vaunted "Killer Bs" couldn't keep pace with Jacksonville, one of four NFL franchises to never make the Super Bowl.

"It's disheartening," Brown said. "I thought we had the right group of guys."

The Jaguars dominated the Steelers on Oct. 8, winning by three touchdowns in a performance so overwhelming Roethlisberger only half-jokingly wondered aloud whether he still had "it' after throwing a career-high five picks.

Roethlisberger and his teammates left little doubt they hoped for a rematch, though Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye cautioned Pittsburgh to be careful what it wished for. The Jaguars hardly appeared intimidated by the 18-degree chill or trying to earn their first road playoff win in a decade.

"I'm sure there will still be tons of people that are going to disapprove and talk negative or hate or do whatever they want," Bortles said. "But we get to keep playing and we get an opportunity to play in Foxborough next week for another week. Just honored to be able to do this especially with this group of guys."

"It's been an awesome year. Just want to keep it going."

FOURTH AND WOE

Pittsburgh rolled up 545 yards of offense, but it's 2 yards the Steelers didn't get that helped send them into an offseason filled with questions.

Twice Pittsburgh had fourth-and-1 in Jacksonville territory. Twice the Steelers did something other than have the 6-foot-5 Roethlisberger sneak. Pittsburgh ran wide in the first quarter and Bell was stuffed for a 4-yard loss. The Jaguars responded immediately by going 75 yards in 11 plays, the final one a 4-yard sprint by T.J. Yeldon that put them up 21-0.

The Steelers were down a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and had fourth-and-inches at the Jacksonville 39. Roethlisberger checked at the line of scrimmage, faked a handoff to Bell and instead threw incomplete to diving rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster .

"It's been a while since I've run a quarterback sneak, I'm for it," said Roethlisberger, who added he will return in 2018. "That's kind of over my head when it comes to why we don't do it. I'm not going to sit here and second guess why we didn't quarterback sneak. I don't know how many years it's been since we quarterback sneaked."

UP NEXT

The Jaguars travel to New England, where they were beaten in the 1996 AFC title game.

The Steelers, despite tying for the league's best record, head home.

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Eagles advance to NFC championship game with 15-10 win over Falcons

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Eagles advance to NFC championship game with 15-10 win over Falcons

PHILADELPHIA -- Fly Eagles Fly.

With the wind and against it.

With Nick Foles engineering several long drives, Jake Elliott converting three field goals, and the defense getting stingy in the tightest spot, Philadelphia moved into the NFC Championship Game with a 15-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday.

Foles directed brilliant marches of 74 and 80 yards in the second half - one into the whipping wind, the other with it - and Elliott atoned for missing an extra point by converting from 53 yards at the end of the second quarter, 37 and 21 in the second half. Then the Eagles (14-3) held when Atlanta (11-7) got to the 9-yard line with a first down, and to the 2 on fourth down.

When Matt Ryan's final pass sailed over Julio Jones' head in the end zone , Philly could celebrate its first playoff victory since the 2008 season.

Next Sunday, the Eagles will host either Minnesota or New Orleans for the conference crown. The Eagles last made the Super Bowl in the 2004 season, losing to New England.

"I mean, we just kept believing in each other," said Foles, who became the starter when Carson Wentz, a leading MVP contender, injured his knee in December. "That was it. Our team never wavered, defense did an amazing job, special teams - that's just been the story this year is that we just all stuck together..."

The Falcons, of course, memorably blew a 28-3 second-half lead to the Patriots in last year's Super Bowl. They will not get the opportunity to atone for it, though Ryan got them close at the end.

Despite being underdogs as the No. 1 seed, the Eagles showed plenty of moxie.

"Just keep on disrespecting and we're going to keep proving people wrong," receiver Alshon Jeffery said.

A masterful 74-yard, 12-play drive on which Foles threw for 70 yards led to Elliott's 37-yard kick into the wind that made it 12-10. The Eagles then put together their best drive, an 80-yarder covering 14 plays, yet again faltered close to the end zone. Elliott added a 21-yarder with 6:02 remaining after coach Doug Pederson briefly considered going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 3.

"It was tricky out there, really gusty," Elliott said.

Then, as the fans in the Linc held their breath, the Eagles held deep in their territory.

"Man, just stay calm," said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who was a force all day. "We always talk about that. We've been in those situations during the regular season, so we kind of know how to handle those situations, not try to make a play but let the play come to us."

And the road to the Super Bowl remains through Philly.

WINDY DECISIONS

Falcons coach Dan Quinn could have opted to take the wind in the fourth quarter after deferring on the opening coin toss. Instead, he took the ball to start the second half, but it was the Eagles who got the only points of the third period.

And in the end, Atlanta had to deal with the currents on that final drive, which did include a 20-yard completion to Jones on fourth-and-6.

"It was a tough game for us tonight," Quinn said, "and as we go through, we will go back and assess everything we have done."

ERROR-FILLED HALF

Mistakes hurt the Eagles in the opening half. Jay Ajayi's fumble and a misplayed punt that bounced off Bryan Braman led to all 10 Atlanta points.

Things began nicely for Philadelphia when safety Brian Poole was tagged with pass interference on a deep pass by Foles that was held up by the wind. But Ajayi fumbled on the next play with Keanu Neal recovering.

Atlanta efficiently mixed runs and passes to drive to Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal for an early lead.

Philadelphia got the run game going with Ajayi in the opening period. Then, with the wind in the next quarter, the Eagles kept the Falcons so off-balance Atlanta took two timeouts in three plays.

Receiver Nelson Agholor's 21-yard run got the ball to the 3, and Foles botched a handoff to Corey Clement. But the quarterback quickly dived on the loose ball and was ruled to have scored. Replay showed otherwise.

Pederson showed no hesitation going for it, and Blount surged in from the 1. Elliott's missed extra point left it 6-3.

Soon after came Matt Bosher's punt that took a wicked bounce and hit Braman while he was blocking. From the Philly 18, the Falcons benefited from two penalties before Ryan scrambled from pressure and found Devonta Freeman for a 6-yard TD and a 10-3 lead.

With 46 seconds left in the half, the hosts got lucky. Foles' errant pass ricocheted off Neal's hands to Torrey Smith for 20 yards. Jeffery made a long stretch to haul in another throw with 1 second remaining, and Elliott's 53-yard field goal just made it over the crossbar.

"It was great for momentum," Foles said. "Jake did an awesome job of kicking that for us."

QB NUMBERS

Foles finished a very efficient outing by going 23 of 30 for 246 yards.

Ryan was 22 of 36 for 210 yards on a difficult day to throw. Jones had nine receptions for 101 yards.

UP NEXT

Philadelphia will host either Minnesota or New Orleans next Sunday night for the NFC title.

Atlanta's season ends after a wild-card berth and a win at Los Angeles before Saturday's defeat.

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