Photo courtesy minnesotavikings.com
MINNEAPOLIS, MN — Hello Abilene Wylie High School, you just reached the NFC Championship — courtesy of journeyman quarterback and alumnus Case Keenum.
Minnesota, with the help of a pair of rushing touchdowns, two defensive turnovers, and an unlikely walk off, staved off a late-game rally to defeat New Orleans 29-26 on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Given how the Saints outpaced the Carolina Panthers in last week’s Wild Card 31-26 finish and the Vikings No. 1 defense, the odds favored a close matchup.
Not 17-0 with 1:18 in the third quarter close.
Former Abilene Wylie quarterback Case Keenum and Minnesota struck first — courtesy a 14-yard run by Jerrick McKinnon less than five minutes into the first quarter. A 20-yard field goal by Kai Forbath — who was automatic on both of his long-distance kicks — two series later, and a Latavius Murray 1-yard score completed a run of 17 unanswered points by halftime.
Interceptions by Andrew Sendejo and Anthony Barr also swayed the tide in Minnesota’s favor.
Brees, the Austin Westlake alum that finished 25-for-40 with 294 yards, three TDs and two interceptions, would help New Orleans seize control and score 14 points in less than four minutes. The first strike — 14 yards in total — fell into the hands of Michael Thomas. Following Keenum’s near game-changing interception, Brees found Thomas again to whittle the deficit to three points.
That’s when Brees and the Saints, down six points and five minutes potentially remaining in their season, went from the postseason eliminated to near NFC Divisional Champions. And it was a fade route, a beaten Lance Kendricks in coverage, and an Alvin Kamara acrobatic catch that almost sealed a victory.
The key word, however, was almost.
Keenum drove the Minnesota offense down the field for a Forbath 53-yard field goal and handed the Vikings a 23-21 lead with 1:29 remaining in the fourth quarter. A minute and 30 seconds, the Saints proved, was enough time for Brees to drive down the field and Will Lutz to split the uprights with a 43-yard field goal of potentially upset proportions.
Minnesota seemed dead in the water with no time to spare and no timeouts to call. Apparently the Vikings didn’t get the memo.
A 20-yard pass — a touchdown that could have been stopped by a simple tackle — turned into a Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard sprint to the end zone with 10 seconds left and into Viking lore. Keenum’s 26-of-31, 318-yard, and one-touchdown performance was the mathematics behind Nw Orleans miscalculation.
61 YARDS 😮
FOR. THE. WIN.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 15, 2018
His failed two-point conversion kneel after New Orleans had to be called back onto the field for a nearly meaningless final play was academic.
For New Orleans, it missed becoming the first team since the New England Patriots to overcome a 17-point halftime lead. For Minnesota it was the first NFC Championship berth since losing to New Orleans in 2009 and a matchup with Philadelphia and fellow former St. Louis Rams’ quarterback Nick Foles.