Teams of destiny have a defining moment, an instant when all hope seemed lost and the odds were against them but somehow, inexplicably, found a way to win. Look at the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, who used a game-tying Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones miracle touchdown to upset the Broncos and move towards Super Bowl XLVIII. Or the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who relied on a goal-line, game saving tackle by linebacker Mike Jones to win Super Bowl XXXIV. Add in the 2007 New York Giants, who defeated the then-18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII thanks to David Tyree’s helmet-catch. And don’t forget “The Catch”, Dwight Clark’s end zone reception that sent the 1981 49ers to their first Super Bowl appearance. Those are just a couple of football’s greatest teams that also happened to be its greatest stories.
These teams share another commonality- a greater significance. The Ravens were playing for linebacker Ray Lewis in the final games of his career and culminating an era of excellence. The Rams showed that a grocery store worker-turned-quarterback could lead a 4-12 team to a Super Bowl victory. The Giants prevented the Patriots from becoming the first team to win 19 games in a season and pulled off perhaps the most stunning upset in the history of football. Clark’s catch sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl but more importantly sparked a 49er dynasty that ranks amongst the most dominant all-time.
One team this January is making its case to join this prestigious club and football immortality- the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings, who are seeking to become the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl hosted in their stadium (Super Bowl LII was awarded to Minnesota) and the first to win a Super Bowl after losing their first four, already have the potential to be historic. After one of the most exhilarating playoff games in NFL history, the Vikings have their signature, defying-all-odds moment. Now, this Minnesota team is in position to earn the final criteria to join a place among the teams of destiny- a victory in Super Bowl LII.
The 2017 Minnesota Vikings made the playoffs on the backs of a dominant defense, brilliant coaching staff, and a couple overlooked players who stepped up big time. When rookie running back Dalvin Cook was lost for the season due to injury and quarterback Sam Bradford was sent to the sideline, it was up to third-string quarterback Case Keenum, an undrafted quarterback with unimpressive stints on the Rams and Texans, to lead them to the playoffs. Keenum shined as the Vikings won the NFC North crown and earned the second seed and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
But it was back to square one come playoff time. The Vikings’ divisional round matchup was the hottest team in the NFC, the New Orleans Saints, who had a more established quarterback (Drew Brees), head coach (Sean Payton), and track record (Super Bowl XLIV win in 2010). The Sunday afternoon game looked to be one of the best of the season. It turned out to be one of the best of all-time, and one of the best that I’ve ever seen.
The Vikings steamrolled the Saints in the first half, outscoring New Orleans 17-0 as nearly everything seemed to go the Vikings’ way. Brees looked like a rookie quarterback against the Vikings’ defense and touchdown runs by Minnesota’s running backs put the Saints in a huge deficit. While we’ve seen blown leads before (see Super Bowl LI), the Vikings’ lead seemed as secure a lead as any with the way the game had been going.
Brees and the Saints wouldn’t go down without a fight and rallied for 14 unanswered points on two Brees touchdown passes (which this author did not see as he believed the game to be “over”). That set the scene for the most insane fourth quarter in NFL history, one that will stick in the minds of football fans for decades to come.
Keenum drove the Vikings back down the field on the ensuing drive, completing one incredible pass to receiver Jarius Wright and avoided a sack with an incomplete pass. Both of which were challenged unsuccessfully by New Orleans coach Sean Payton, costing his team both of his challenges and two of his three second-half timeouts (more on that later). Minnesota kicker Kai Forbath connected on a 49-yard fielder (after missing his first that day) to give the Vikings a 20-14 lead with just over 10 minutes left in regulation.
The Saints looked to take the lead from the Vikings but saw their drive stopped on a failed trick play. On third down, receiver Willie Snead caught a short toss from Brees behind the line of scrimmage and overthrew a wide-open Alvin Kamara downfield. The Vikings received the punt and put together a solid 30 yard drive to take three and a half minutes off the clock, but punter Ryan Quigley’s punt was blocked by New Orleans, allowing the Saints to take over on the Minnesota 41 yard line. The play was reminiscent of the Saints’ blocked punt in 2006 in their first game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and similarly breathed new life into the Saints team.
Rejuvenated by the blocked punt, the Saints stormed down the field. Brees was perfect, connecting on all three of his pass attempts, including one to the back of the end zone to Kamara for the game-tying touchdown. After New Orleans kicker Wil Lutz converted on the extra point attempt, the Saints took their first lead of the game, 21-20, and found themselves on the verge of the NFC Championship Game with three minutes remaining. The Minnesota crowd was silenced.
Now down by one with just minutes left, Keenum kept his cool and drove Minnesota down the field. Keenum completed a spectacular heave to receiver Adam Thielen for a 24-yard gain, then added another five-yard pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph to put the Vikings in position for a go-ahead 53-yard field goal.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Minnesota Vikings and their kickers in the playoffs, it is not pretty. In 1998, kicker Gary Anderson, who had made every kick during the season, had the chance to send the Vikings to the Super Bowl but missed from 39 yards out. Just two seasons ago, Minnesota was sent home by another fatal miss, when Blair Walsh inexplicably missed an easy 27-yard field goal as time expired in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. So when Vikings kicker Kai Forbath set up to kick his 53-yarder, he was kicking against history. His attempt was true, going straight through the uprights and giving the Vikes back a 23-21 lead.
But red-hot Drew Brees wasn’t done. With one minute and 29 seconds left, Brees completed three passes to get the Saints into Minnesota territory, then found Snead for an astounding 4th-and-10 conversion to Minnesota’s 33-yard line. That catch, plus a couple more short throws, set up a go-ahead 43-yard field goal for the Saints’ Wil Lutz with only 30 second left in regulation. Like Forbath, Lutz was perfect and New Orleans seemed to seal the game with a 24-23 edge.
Keenum and the Vikings started their desperation drive at their own 25-yard line, and a false start penalty pushed Minnesota back even further. Keenum found an open Stefon Diggs for a 19-yard gain, but Diggs was stopped in the middle of the field and the Vikings were forced to use their final timeout. Two incompletions later, the Vikings faced third down from their own 39-yard line, with no timeouts and only ten seconds remaining. Hope seemed lost.
That’s when a team of destiny is born. Keenum launched a pass down the right sideline to Diggs at the Minnesota 35-yard line. Diggs leaped in the air and caught the ball, while New Orleans safety Marcus Williams dove at Diggs’ legs. Williams missed, and when Diggs landed in bounds at the 35-yard line, took one look at the end zone and dashed as fast as he could. With no Saints defender in the vicinity, Diggs held the ball up to the screaming Minnesota crowd as he crossed into the end zone and time expired. The Vikings survived 29-24 on Diggs’ walk-off 61-yard touchdown reception and the heartbroken Saints slumped back to their locker room.
The game will be remembered for not only the Keenum-Diggs pass that sent the Vikings to the playoffs, though that will be on highlight reels forever and undeniably made me scream and jump in the air in disbelief. There were the long field goals, the blocked punt, the fourth-down conversion, the furious comeback that also made the game one of the most entertaining of the season. The only downside for a non-Saints fan is that one could hardly imagine a better Super Bowl in three weeks.
The Vikings’ work isn’t complete. Next week, they will travel to chilly Philly to take on the top-seeded Eagles with a spot in Super Bowl LII on the line. If the Vikes win and become the first team to play in their stadium in the Super Bowl, they’ll either take on the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars (owners of the NFL’s best defense) or the fearsome New England Patriots (the defending Super Bowl champs).
In a couple weeks, we’ll find out if the 2017 Minnesota Vikings have what it takes to bring Minnesota its first Super Bowl. Until then, it wouldn’t be wise to doubt Case Keenum and Co. They might have destiny on their side.