The tormented history of the Vikings can be written through moments like the ones Mike Zimmer drilled in the Mankato heat: Missed field goals. Inexplicable penalties. Dropped passes. Back-breaking interceptions. The term "Hail Mary" was coined to mark a play that ended the season of perhaps the greatest team Bud Grant coached. And the fourth quarter of the Vikings' divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday threatened to burn a few more horrors _ the deflected Ryan Quigley punt, the Drew Brees fourth-down conversion, the Wil Lutz field goal _ into the collective sports psyche of the state.
But with 10 seconds left on Sunday, needing at least a field goal with no timeouts left and the ball on their own 39-yard line, the Vikings called "Seven Heaven." And they watched Stefon Diggs leap for a Case Keenum pass, turn the corner and march a fanbase right out of sporting hell.
Diggs' 61-yard touchdown catch, on the final play of the Vikings' 29-24 win over the Saints, delivered a euphoric moment that Minnesota fans are used to witnessing only as victims. It secured the Vikings' first trip to the NFC Championship Game in eight years, at the end of a fourth quarter that saw Minnesota and New Orleans combine for 29 points, and turned what might have been another heartbreak into what might have been the greatest moment in franchise history.
It's a storybook ending _ and it never ends that way," Diggs said. "Usually, it's reality. It's real life. Things go, you walk home and worry about tomorrow. But today had other plans. I give it all to God, because things like this just don't happen."
In a desperate attempt to get into field goal range with 10 seconds left, Keenum hit Diggs on a corner route _ given the number 7 in the route tree developed by Don Coryell _ at the Saints' 34. Diggs made a leaping grab, expecting Saints defensive back Marcus Williams to hit him as he landed. Instead, as Williams dove at the air beneath him, Diggs stumbled forward, regained his balance and strode toward the end zone with the ball aloft in his right hand.
"I said to one of the guys on the sideline, 'We've been practicing all these situations through OTAs and training camp and even during the season,' " Zimmer said. "We actually practice that one every week. Diggs made a great play, great catch. Case made a great throw. I've tried to put these guys in all of these different situations throughout the course of the year and luckily it paid off today."
The touchdown was the first game-winner in NFL playoff history as time expired. It means the Vikings will play the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field at 5:40 p.m. on Sunday, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings built a 17-0 lead at halftime, forcing Brees into two interceptions while limiting the former NFL MVP to 117 yards on 8-of-18 passing. Three drives of seven plays or more _ all of them covering at least 55 yards _ helped the Vikings build their lead, as noise levels at U.S. Bank Stadium touched 118 decibels.
They appeared on their way to another scoring drive to open the second half, until a stunt on the right side of the Vikings' line led to a Sheldon Rankins sack that took Minnesota out of field goal range.
Quigley's punt dropped in the end zone for his first touchback of the season, and the Saints drove 80 yards for a touchdown on their ensuing drive, with Brees hitting Michael Thomas for a 3-yard score a play after Thomas' hit knocked safety Andrew Sendejo out of the game and sent Xavier Rhodes into a frenzy.
Keenum's backpedaling interception on the Vikings' next offensive play put the Saints in position to score again, and as New Orleans pulled within three early in the fourth quarter, the raucous crowd drew inward, silently entertaining its worst nightmares.
The Vikings' next drive led to a Kai Forbath field goal, and on a third-and-1 from their own 36, the Saints opted to have someone other than Brees throw a pass for the first time all season. Brees flipped a screen to wide receiver Willie Snead, whose pass to Alvin Kamara went just a little too far to go for a touchdown.
But the Vikings' next drive was scuttled by Kyle Rudolph's illegal block in the back, and after former Vikings defensive end George Johnson got a piece of Quigley's punt, former Vikings linebacker Gerald Hodges recovered it, setting up a Saints drive that gave New Orleans the lead on a Brees-to-Kamara touchdown pass.
Improbably, the Vikings would need a late comeback to win a game they led 17-0 at halftime. And they got the big play they needed when Keenum threw a pass off his back foot for Adam Thielen, hitting the receiver for 24 yards in front of the Vikings' bench. Zimmer slapped Thielen on the backside, and after Keenum's deep heave was broken up on third down, Forbath drilled a 53-yard field goal to put the Vikings up 23-21 with 1:29 left.
Brees found tight end Josh Hill for 18 yards, hit Ted Ginn Jr. for 11, and on 4th-and-10, the quarterback drilled a sideline throw to Snead for 13 yards, beating Mackensie Alexander to keep the Saints' drive _ and their season _ alive. Lutz's field goal put New Orleans up 24-23 with 29 seconds left, and as Keenum threw two incomplete passes following a 19-yard completion to Diggs, the Vikings were down to one act of desperation.
That act turned into a moment unlike any Vikings fans have ever seen.
"I just ran on the field and threw my helmet," safety Harrison Smith said. "I had to go back and find it. It was kind of surreal. It was almost like, 'Is there a flag? Is there a something?' It was just one of those plays that will go down (in history)."