Years from now, the only thing most of us are going to remember from Sunday’s epic Vikings-Saints divisional-round showdown was the incredible way it ended: with a jaw-dropping walk-off touchdown by Minnesota receiver Stefon Diggs—oh, and the inexplicable whiff by New Orleans rookie safety Marcus Williams that allowed it. Even just weeks from now, that single play might be all we can recall from one of the best games all season. But while there’s no taking away from the unfiltered playoff football brilliance that finale brought us, that unbelievable game-ending play erased what would’ve been a signature comeback win from Saints quarterback Drew Brees’s storied résumé.
The Vikings’ defense dominated the first two quarters en route to a 17-0 halftime lead, holding the future Hall of Famer to 8-of-18 passing for 117 yards and two picks. At that point, it was fair to wonder whether we were witnessing a disappointing end to the Brees era in New Orleans; he’s set to become a free agent after the year, and against the stingy Minnesota defense, it didn’t feel like a big comeback was in the cards. But Brees stormed back in the second half and led his team on scoring drives on four of its next five possessions. The wily vet completed 17 of 22 passes for 177 yards with three touchdown passes in the final two frames, calmly hitting receiver Michael Thomas for a pair of scores—the first late in the third quarter and the second early in the fourth—before finding rookie running back Alvin Kamara in the back corner of the end zone with just over three minutes left to give his team its first lead of the game. Case Keenum and the Vikings’ offense answered, marching downfield to kick the take-back-the-lead field goal with a minute and a half to go, but left plenty of time on the clock for Brees to do his thing.
From there, it’s hard to appreciate Brees’s greatness without laying out the situation in vivid detail. On the second play of the Saints’ ensuing drive, he hit tight end Josh Hill over the middle for 18 yards before connecting with Ted Ginn Jr. near the sideline for 11 more, moving New Orleans out past midfield. But as quickly as it started, the drive stalled; three straight incompletions put the Saints into a fourth-and-10 with 45 seconds remaining, the season hanging in the balance. But despite the magnitude of that situation—to borrow from the late, great Stuart Scott—the quarterback was as cool as the other side of the pillow. He calmly took the snap and unleashed a bullet on a deep, out-breaking route to receiver Willie Snead, hitting him in the hands to pick up the first down and keep the Saints’ season alive.
Four plays later, Wil Lutz hit what would’ve been the game-winning 43-yard field goal.
Then this happened.
The Vikings produced a miracle, and Brees’s steely second-half performance ended up being all for naught. Still, the veteran showed no signs of age as he alternated between perfectly placed touch passes downfield and frozen-rope fastballs through traffic. The way he led his team back over the final 30 minutes served as a perfect reminder that despite 11 Pro Bowls, seven passing-yard titles, five 5,000-yard passing seasons, and one Super Bowl ring, Brees will always be, thanks to playing in the era of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, underappreciated in his time.
Drew Brees is Duke Snider. People don't appreciate his greatness enough because he played most of his career the same time as Mantle and Mays.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 15, 2018
Playoff losses like this complicate legacies, particularly at the quarterback position, where Super Bowl rings carry incredible weight. The Saints looked like a legit championship-caliber team, nearly knocking the no. 2 seed Vikings off in their own stadium. Had they won, likely would’ve been odds-on favorites to beat the Eagles next weekend and head back to the big game. Instead, Brees must go home. And while he expressed the hope for a return on a new deal next year, his future with the Saints remains uncertain—as does his shot at that elusive second Super Bowl ring.