The moments came so fast, in such rapid succession, that it might be easy to forget some as time passes. As with any instant classic, though, it’s worth trying to etch the indelible images into your mind. Try to remember Stefon Diggs suspended in midair, his feet dangling just high enough above the ground to avoid an attempted diving tackle. Hang on to the sight of Case Keenum reacting like every stunned onlooker as he threw his hands atop his head and mouthed the words “Oh my god,” with Diggs standing in the end zone. Don’t forget Diggs whipping his helmet to the ground, basking in the glow of his heroics, with his outstretched arms seeming to ask the world: Are you not entertained?
The Vikings’ 29-24 divisional-round victory over the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium featured a finish for the ages, with Keenum’s desperation heave to Diggs producing a 61-yard touchdown as the clock struck zero. Even as the miraculous became reality, it felt impossible to fully comprehend what had happened. “There’s a lot I don’t remember,” a dumbstruck Keenum said in the interview room afterward. “I’m still swimming.”
That a last-ditch try to set up a game-winning field goal instantly morphed into a walk-off score is hard enough to fathom. Harder yet is the fact it lifted a fan base that’s historically been haunted by its late-game playoff failings. When Keenum led the entire crowd in one final “Skol” chant with no time remaining on the clock, it sounded like 66,000 people exorcising Gary Anderson–sized demons from their lungs.
Whatever incredulity lingered on the field and in the stands drifted into the Vikings’ locker room after the game. Reserve linebacker Kentrell Brothers paced around with his face in his phone, streaming the moment on Instagram. “I’m so shook right now,” Brothers said. “Even we don’t know what’s going on.” As Diggs sat at his locker and took in a pair of replays on a reporter’s phone, he could muster nothing but a single, “Damn …” A few stalls over, in between bouts of resting his face in his hands, Keenum wondered aloud to fellow quarterback Sam Bradford how that final play could possibly turn out the way that it did.
“[It was] the fourth time we ran it!” Keenum exclaimed of the game-winner. “What else did they think we were gonna run?”
Perspective was scarce in the immediate aftermath, but it’s worth remembering that the Minneapolis Miracle was just a single iconic moment from an all-time-great playoff game. The Vikings roared out of the gate, engineering a near-perfect opening drive that was capped by a 14-yard Jerick McKinnon touchdown on a nifty toss design. They didn’t slow down from there. Minnesota followed the script it used to win 13 regular-season games and earn the no. 2 seed in the NFC for the entire first two quarters. Drew Brees completed just eight of 18 passes and tossed two interceptions in the Saints’ first scoreless half in more than three years. The Vikings went into the locker room ahead 17-0; their defense extended its streak of consecutive opposing drives without surrendering a touchdown to a preposterous 31.
The league’s best scoring defense can sometimes resemble a 25-foot python methodically crushing the life out of its prey. For the first part of Sunday afternoon, its victim happened to be a Super Bowl–winning quarterback who will one day walk straight into the Hall of Fame.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Brees was unwilling to fade quietly into the cold Minnesota night. “You don’t play a guy like him and the things they do offensively with the weapons that they have without getting into a fight,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said later. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a 17-0 game.” After perfectly placing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas on the Saints’ opening drive of the second half, Brees had New Orleans on the doorstep again after a Keenum interception late in the third quarter. On a second-and-goal from the Minnesota 3-yard line, Brees checked into a play-action throw that took advantage of Vikings cornerback Terence Newman’s outside leverage and delivered a perfect strike to Thomas for a score. Just like that, it was 17-14; the sequence was only one flash of brilliance in a half full of them for the 11-time Pro Bowler.
To cap the Saints’ comeback with 3:01 remaining in the fourth quarter, Brees unleashed a picturesque 14-yard throw on a wheel route to do-everything rookie running back Alvin Kamara out of the slot. Then, when the Vikings answered with a 53-yard field goal to retake the lead in the final two minutes, Brees was able to mount a response. He somehow got around an unblocked Eric Kendricks and made a sidearm flick to Thomas to get New Orleans in range for a Wil Lutz 43-yard kick to give the Saints an all-but-definitive 24-23 edge.
When the ball sailed through the uprights, the dread that had crept over the Minnesota crowd hung there like a haze. For as noble an effort as the Vikings had put forth and for as magical a season as they had—overcoming injuries to Bradford and rookie running back Dalvin Cook and emerging stronger; turning former castoffs such as Keenum and wide receiver Adam Thielen into stars—none of it seemed like it’d be enough to slay a giant like Brees when it mattered most. Keenum and the offense trotted onto the field with 25 seconds left, and not much hope remained.
“[Thielen] told me, ‘I don’t care what’s called,’” Diggs said after the game. “‘Make it work.’”
For much of Sunday’s game, the Vikings’ passing approach was the same as the one they’d relied on all season. Whenever Keenum saw an opportunity, he would put the ball up for grabs and give his stable of game-changing pass catchers a shot to come down with it. Outside of an interception by Saints safety Marcus Williams late in the third quarter, each risk had ended in Minnesota’s favor. After tossing that pick, Keenum bounced back by placing a beautiful touch throw to Jarius Wright down the left sideline for a 27-yard gain that set up the field goal that made the score 20-14. With Minnesota trailing 21-20 in the final two minutes, Keenum launched a prayer to Thielen down the right side that produced an acrobatic 24-yard catch that the wideout reeled in despite battling through defensive pass interference. Nearly all of Keenum’s decisions displayed a deep-rooted trust in his receivers’ ability to win when called upon; it mirrored an ethos that has come to define these Vikings.
“There was a moment before the game today I remember looking around,” Keenum said. “It was after warm-ups. We came back in, and everybody was going around high-fiving, just getting locked in. And I remember thinking, ‘This is a special group of guys. This is a special group. I’ve never been around a group like this.’”
With Minnesota’s season hanging in the balance, it was only fitting that Keenum would give his guys one final opportunity. On a third-and-10 with 10 seconds left, the Vikings’ play call was “Seven Heaven,” a corner-route concept they’d run previously in the possession. The hope was that if Diggs faced man coverage from the slot, a throw to the sideline could get the Vikings the yardage necessary to enter field goal range and allow Diggs to scamper out of bounds. As the huddle broke, Keenum offered one final message. “He said as I was about to leave, ‘I’m going to give somebody a chance,’” Diggs said. “That somebody was me today.”
The details of that final throw will be dissected for generations. Williams diving to take Diggs to the ground will go down as an all-time blunder, one that the New Orleans rookie clearly internalized as he collapsed to his knees before making his way to the Saints’ locker room. But just as much credit belongs to Diggs for having the wherewithal to stop his momentum and keep his body inbounds. “I took a [mental] picture before I turned around to catch the ball,” Diggs said. “And there was only one guy there. If he slips, then I’m going to try and stay up.” When the dust settled, Diggs was standing in the end zone, sending the Vikings to Philadelphia for a date with the Eagles in next week’s NFC championship game.
This was catharsis for a city that had endured wide left, Brett Favre’s interception, and wide left again. It was euphoria for a head coach who had long waited for this chance, a receiver who had slipped to the fifth round of the draft, and a quarterback who had been waived twice and mocked as recently as a year ago.
As Keenum stood at the microphone after the game, nearly an hour after the final horn had sounded, he still didn’t have much of a grasp on what had transpired. The 29-year-old quarterback, on his third team in six seasons, was all head shakes and wide-eyed smiles and shrugs. “I really don’t believe it,” Keenum said. “It’s incredible. I still can’t believe it. I guess I can now.”
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Blake Bortles won a playoff game against the Steelers, 45–42. I get that all of you know this by now; I just had to write it out one more time. The Jaguars’ stunning victory over Pittsburgh was easily the strangest game of the divisional round. Anybody constructing an upset bid for Jacksonville likely pictured a low-scoring rock fight dominated by the league’s best pass defense. Instead, the Jags won a game in which Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards with five touchdowns.
Lost in the yearlong celebration about Jacksonville’s defense has been the superb job that offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone have done constructing a tenable offense around Bortles, and Sunday’s game boiled that approach down to its essence. The Jags used a ton of play-action against the Steelers, often relying on feigned handoffs to facilitate big chunk gains in the passing game. On an ingeniously scripted opening drive, Jacksonville sent backup tight end Ben Koyack across the formation as if he were going to seal the back side, only for Koyack to leak into the flat for an easy completion and 21-yard scamper. Early in the fourth quarter, Bortles executed a hard play fake before launching a deep shot to Keelan Cole down the middle of the field for a 45-yard gain that set up a short touchdown. And after Antonio Brown pulled down his second preposterous scoring catch of the day to slice Jacksonville’s lead to 35-28, Bortles answered again, this time by hitting fullback Tommy Bohanon up the seam on a gorgeous play-action design. All afternoon, the Jags staff helped its quarterback with schematic choices. He delivered every time that he was asked to make a critical throw down the stretch.
The Jags’ reliance on play-action tends to work because opposing defenses are forced to devote so many resources to stopping the run, and Sunday was no exception. Leonard Fournette (25 carries for 109 yards with three scores) had a huge day, and what stood out most was Jacksonville’s total dominance up front. The offensive line imposed its will on a talented Steelers front four both on the ground and in pass protection. On T.J. Yeldon’s 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, left tackle Cam Robinson collapsed the right side of Pittsburgh’s line so fast that the play looked like video footage of a building implosion. The Steelers’ pass rush didn’t sniff Bortles all game. He was hit just four times and barely pressured, allowing the slower-developing underneath routes the Jags favored on third down to come open for a handful of huge completions.
2. Jay Ajayi came through in a big way during the Eagles’ 15–10 victory over Atlanta. Ajayi’s final stat line from Saturday (15 carries for 54 yards; three receptions for 44 yards) wasn’t especially notable, but he ripped off several show-stopping runs in the first half and made Falcons defenders miss virtually every time he touched the ball. When Philadelphia gave Miami a fourth-round pick for Ajayi just before the trade deadline in October, it felt as if the franchise had obtained a luxury item. The Eagles offense was rolling with the combination of LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement toting the rock; it’d racked up at least 100 rushing yards in six of its first seven games. Landing Ajayi added to an embarrassment of riches.
Yet after Carson Wentz’s season-ending ACL injury, a back like Ajayi has become a necessary element of Philly’s offense. With so much attention now focused on the running game, the Eagles’ excellent line and capable collection of runners is no longer enough to sustain success on the ground. This group relies on Ajayi, who can conjure gains that don’t exist upon first glance. His role in the Eagles’ win and place in the NFC championship game is a lesson to any executive looking to fill out the edges of his roster for the stretch run: If there’s a move that can make your team better, do it — redundancies be damned.
3. Fletcher Cox and Philadelphia’s front four controlled Atlanta in the run game. Cox finished Saturday with a sack and two quarterback hits, but his work as a pass rusher had nothing on his showing against the run. The Eagles’ star defensive tackle racked up five stops in the ground game, consistently stomping the interior of the Falcons’ offensive line. Whether he was making plays laterally down the line of scrimmage or holding up at the point of attack, Cox did all he could to shut down the Atlanta rushing attack. Devonta Freeman managed just 7 yards on 10 carries while dealing with Cox on runs up the middle.
The Falcons found some success by pushing the ball to the perimeter on Tevin Coleman toss plays and bounced carries to the outside. Eventually, though, the Eagles slammed that door shut, too. Defensive end Brandon Graham shot into the backfield and dropped Freeman for a 5-yard loss on Atlanta’s final drive before adding another stop for no gain four plays later. The Falcons still pushed the ball into the red zone and had a shot at scoring the game-winning touchdown, but it took them more than five minutes of game time to get there. That methodical possession ensured that Matt Ryan’s desperation toss to Julio Jones would be the last time Atlanta had the ball.
4. While we’re on the topic, let’s dig into the Falcons’ final sequence. On first-and-goal from the Philadelphia 9-yard line, Ryan threw a fade to Jones in the left corner of the end zone, with cornerback Ronald Darby in man coverage. Whatever your feelings about fade routes in general, giving a football centaur an opportunity to make this play on first down is probably the most defensible use of the approach.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s second-down call is tougher to justify. In an effort to use a penetrating defensive line’s aggressiveness to his advantage, Sarkisian dialed up a shovel pass to third-string running back Terron Ward. There’s a lot wrong with that sentence. It doesn’t include the name Julio Jones, for one, either as a potential target or a useful red zone decoy. Beyond that, Ward played just two snaps the whole game; one came on a second-down play near the goal line with the outcome hanging in the balance. Thirdly, Atlanta backs Freeman and Coleman both double as devastating receivers; maybe one of them should have gotten this chance. And finally, even if Ryan’s pass was completed to Ward, there was virtually no way that he would have been able to go more than a few yards past the line of scrimmage, necessitating two more shots at the end zone.
After that shovel pass to Ward fell harmlessly to the turf, Sarkisian came back with a slant to Jones as the single receiver on the left side. Thumbs-up, Steve. That went for 7 yards. Good work. Yet that’s when this went off the rails. On fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, the Falcons lined up in shotgun with fullback Derrick Coleman split out wide to the left. That’s the first problem. With Coleman aligned to that side, there was no chance that Atlanta was heading that way with a pass attempt. That bore out when Ryan sprinted to his right at the snap and tried to find Jones in the right corner of the end zone. On the play that could save their season, the Falcons cut off an entire half of the field and tried to fit a ball into a tight space to the only receiver who could realistically be targeted based on how they lined up before the damn snap.
5. Not to be outdone, the Steelers had a few head-scratching play calls of their own. Pittsburgh faced two separate fourth-and-1 situations against Jacksonville, and both times Roethlisberger checked into plays that didn’t seem conducive to picking up a few feet. On the Steelers’ final drive of the first quarter, Roethlisberger flipped a toss to Le’Veon Bell on the right side, where he was stuffed by Jalen Ramsey in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. Then, with the Steelers trailing 28-21 in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger checked to a play-action pass and tried to find receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster streaking across the field. The attempt fell incomplete.
The toss play, no matter what Roethlisberger saw in the box, is hard to defend. But the throw to Smith-Schuster is a byproduct of the way that Roethlisberger and this offense operate. The sticks rarely come into play when Roethlisberger lets it rip on third and fourth downs, as evidenced by his 43-yard touchdown heave to Antonio Brown on a fourth-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter. Uncorking a downfield throw to Smith-Schuster when the Steelers needed only a yard may have seemed counterintuitive, but that approach is one of the reasons this offense has been able to dial up big plays at any given moment. It’s difficult to have one without the other.
6. Even in defeat, both Antonio Brown and Julio Jones reminded everyone of their genius. I’m still not sure how to comprehend either of Brown’s touchdown receptions from Sunday’s game. He’s a mythical being who we, as a football-watching public, don’t deserve. Starting him was apparently a game-time decision because of his lingering calf injury, yet that didn’t stop him from finishing with seven receptions for 132 yards against the NFL’s best pass defense. Both of Brown’s touchdown catches came in coverage against A.J. Bouye, a second-team All-Pro cornerback.
Brown’s route-running majesty is the most respected part of his game, but just as impressive is the way the 5-foot-10 receiver consistently wins in 50–50 and contested-catch situations. Bouye was in excellent position on both of Brown’s scores. It didn’t matter. The smallest possible opening is enough for Brown to rip out a defense’s heart.
Jones, meanwhile, may not have had any show-stopping touchdowns in the divisional round, but he did have yet another ho-hum, 100-plus-yard playoff performance. What jumped out most from another excellent postseason showing was just how unstoppable the Atlanta star is on deep comeback routes. While great route-running is typically illustrated by shifty receivers roasting defensive backs at the line of scrimmage, Jones’s ability to threaten opponents vertically on a route and not give away when he’ll throttle down requires just as much mastery. Corners are so afraid of Jones beating them over the top — and Jones sells his movement so convincingly — that they have no chance of sticking with him when he breaks back to the ball.
7. The Patriots’ pass rush sprung to life against the Titans, which is good news entering their matchup with Jacksonville. New England notched eight sacks in Saturday’s 35–14 rout of Tennessee and terrorized Marcus Mariota all game. Trey Flowers recorded only one of those sacks, but he picked up three quarterback hits and was by far the Pats’ most disruptive pass rusher. When given the chance to pin his ears back and work downhill, Flowers can do a lot of damage. His sack in the third quarter came on a twist stunt that provided way more momentum for Flowers than the interior of the Titans’ line could handle.
Part of the Jaguars’ offensive success against the Steelers was a byproduct of the line keeping Bortles clean for nearly the entire game. If the Pats can generate consistent pressure, it’ll go a long way in ensuring that the version of Bortles that appeared Sunday won’t show up again in Foxborough.
8. That Myles Jack is an afterthought relative to his superstar teammates speaks to how ridiculous this Jaguars defense is. When Jacksonville landed the UCLA linebacker in the second round of the 2016 draft, the thought was that he could go down as a steal if he could eventually overcome the devastating knee injury that had ended his college career. A year and a half later, Jack has developed into a great coverage linebacker and an ideal fit for the Jags’ scheme, yet his name barely gets mentioned alongside the deluge of standouts who populate this roster.
Jack’s first-quarter interception in Pittsburgh is the sort of play that few linebackers in the league can even dream of making. The mobility required to get to the throw, the ball skills necessary to haul it in, and the awareness essential to keeping his feet inbounds is a combination reserved for a guy who somehow played both linebacker and running back at an elite level for a Power Five program. Jack is an outrageous talent; among this Jaguars group, he’s just one of the guys.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Everson Griffen’s absurd pass deflection to create an interception.
Griffen’s initial burst off the edge is among the best in football, and because opposing tackles have to account for that speed rush, the Minnesota star’s spin-move counter can be lethal. On this second-and-9 with the Saints in the red zone midway through the second quarter, Griffen attempted to hit that spin against New Orleans left tackle Terron Armstead. He couldn’t get there, but Griffen still got his arm in the passing lane — even with his back to Drew Brees, and even after Armstead slowed him.
How Griffen knew exactly when to throw that paw up is beyond me, yet he got such a good piece of the ball that Anthony Barr picked it off and ended a Saints drive. On New Orleans’s next possession, Griffen roasted Armstead with his speed rush for a sack and torpedoed another series.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Eagles used a steady diet of run-pass options to give Nick Foles clear throwing lanes and simple decisions in the passing game.
RPOs are a staple of the Philly offense and one of the reasons that this unit can be so difficult to defend. By providing Foles with the option to hand off or throw depending on the situation, the Eagles’ staff guarantees that many of his attempts come only when the offense notices a matchup or numbers advantage. Several of Nelson Agholor’s short receptions over the middle came on RPO designs, and the above fourth-quarter completion to Mack Hollins put the Eagles in prime position for a pivotal field goal.
Foles wasn’t spectacular against Atlanta, but he did enough. Philadelphia’s heavy reliance on RPOs was a huge part of helping him get there.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
Let’s watch this one more time, shall we?