Drew Brees said he didn't want to leave New Orleans . . . and apparently he won't.
Drew Brees said he didn't want to leave New Orleans . . . and apparently he won't.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
NEW ORLEANS -- Saints All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan grinned playfully as he glanced up at a bottle of red wine in the top shelf of his locker and asked if anyone knew Carolina quarterback Cam Newton's address.
A bottle with the name "Jordan" on the label - even if it isn't made by the Saints star's family - might be the last thing Newton wants right now.
Drew Brees and his receiving corps came through when Carolina stifled New Orleans' prolific backfield, and a relentless Jordan spearheaded a late defensive stand to seal a 31-26 an NFC wild-card round victory on Sunday.
"You can't be more happy about the way we played in terms of how we finished the game," Jordan said. "We almost let them back in the game, but here I am standing as winner. Here I am, as a Cam Jordan, sending Cam Newton a bottle of Jordan wine."
Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns, but one more completion would have considerably lowered the stress level on the Saints' sideline. Coach Sean Payton kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-short with two minutes remaining and Carolina out of timeouts, hoping for one more first down that would have allowed New Orleans to run out the clock.
But Brees couldn't find an open receiver, was flushed out of the pocket and decided his best option was to throw it up for grabs. It was intercepted by safety Mike Adams, which turned out better for New Orleans than an incompletion because it meant the Panthers had to start from their own 31 instead of mid-field.
Still, Newton completed three straight passes to move the Panthers to the Saints 26-yard line with 58 seconds left before New Orleans' resistance stiffened.
"I'm frustrated," Newton said. "I hate that I couldn't do enough to get a win today for a lot of guys that I think so highly of.
"I just have to be better," he added. "I'm not going to take the cowardly way and point somebody else out."
The comeback bid began to fizzle when Jordan induced an intentional grounding penalty on Newton, making it third-and-25 on the Saints 34 and a requiring 10-second runoff that left 20 seconds on the clock.
After an incompletion in the end zone, Vonn Bell sacked Newton on a safety blitz , ensuring the Saints (12-5) swept all three meetings with Carolina (11-6) this season, in addition to winning the first postseason game they've played in four seasons.
"The coaches wanted to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands fast," Bell said. "They dialed it up and I said, `Go make a play.'"
Brees' touchdowns went for 80-yards to Ted Ginn and 9 yards to tight end Josh Hill. Fullback Zach line and running back Alvin Kamara each ran for short touchdowns, the latter set up by Michael Thomas' 46-yard reception .
"What we've shown offensively is we have a lot of ways to be effective," Brees said, mentioning clutch first-down catches by Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead in addition to the big plays by Ginn and Thomas. "The ball was spread around quite a bit and guys were making plays when they had the chances."
Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards on a day when the Saints needed the passing game to compensate for a ground game that struggled to get going. Thomas said when he noticed the Panthers playing with one safety deep instead of their usual two, "you're licking your chops with a quarterback like Drew Brees and the talent we have. We knew what we had to do and it was on the receivers."
Ginn, a former Panthers receiver, celebrated the sweep of his former team by holding up a broom in the locker room.
Helped by the presence of tight end Greg Olsen - who did not play in the teams' previous two meetings - Newton marched Carolina into Saints territory more often than not. But the Panthers stalled four times inside the New Orleans 25 in the first three quarters. They settled for four field goal attempts on those drives, one of which kicker Graham Gano surprisingly missed from 25-yards.
Jordan called the Saints' red-zone stops "huge."
"Had half of those been touchdowns, we'd be sitting in a different spot," Jordan said.
Olsen had eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Newton finished 24 of 40 passing for 349 yards and two touchdowns, including a 56-yard scoring strike to Christian McCaffrey that pulled the Panthers within a touchdown with 4:09 left.
RUSHING THE PASSSER
Newton was sacked four times, once each by Bell, Jordan, Jonathan Freeney, and David Onyemata. The sack by Onyemata came as Newton tried to spin away from Tyeler Davison and slammed his head into Onyemata's chest. Newton appeared to be checked for a concussion, but missed only one play before returning to the game on Carolina's next possession
Newton sat on the field near the sideline after the play, and while a new NFL rule calls for players to be taken to the locker room to be evaluated for concussions if they appear to be struggling to stand, Newton said part of his helmet got pushed into his eyelid. Panthers coach Ron Rivera offered a similar explanation and added that Newton only sat down to give backup Derek Anderson more time to warm up.
The NFL said it planned to discuss the matter with the Panthers medical staff before commenting further.
Panthers: Cornerback Daryl Worley briefly was placed in the concussion protocol but also cleared to return during the game.
Saints: Starting left guard Andrus Peat was carted off the field with a broken left fibula.
Panthers: Begin the offseason after their fourth trip to the playoffs in five years lasted on game.
Saints: Move on to play at Minnesota in the NFC Divisional playoffs.