Playoff heartbreak has long defined the Minnesota Vikings. The franchise has flirted with triumph on numerous occasions only to fall short in the most deflating manner possible.
In 1975, the Vikings fell victim to the original Hail Mary pass, a controversial 50-yard bomb from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson that sent the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. Two decades later, a 15-1 Minnesota juggernaut lost in the NFC title game when Gary Anderson missed a 39-yard field goal, his first and only misfire of the season. The tide appeared to turn in 2009 when villain-turned-hero Brett Favre powered the Vikings to another conference championship game. However, an inexcusable interception in the final moments of regulation turned a game-winning field-goal opportunity into overtime anguish. More recently, Minnesota had the opportunity to beat the Seahawks in the playoffs with a 27-yard field goal with less than 30 seconds remaining. Instead, Blair Walsh pulled the kick wide left, reopening old wounds.
Until the final moments, Sunday's divisional-round game against the Saints appeared to follow the script.
After racing out to a 17-point lead in the first half, the Vikings saw their fortunes slowly disintegrate. Saints quarterback Drew Brees cut the deficit to 10 with a 12-play, 80-yard drive. On the first play following the kickoff, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum tossed an ugly interception to safety Marcus Williams, setting up Brees deep in Minnesota territory. The Saints took advantage, with Brees hitting Michael Thomas for his second touchdown of the night.
With the game close, the teams traded blows for the remainder of the fourth quarter. The Saints notched their first lead of the game when rookie sensation Alvin Kamara hauled in a 14-yard strike near the corner of the end zone. The Vikings fired back, stringing together a nine-play drive to set up a successful Kai Forbath field goal. The series left 1:29 on the clock, enough time for a vintage Brees comeback. The future Hall of Famer delivered, moving New Orleans 50 yards down the field for a go-ahead field goal. Kicker Wil Lutz knocked through the 43-yard attempt, reclaiming the lead with just 25 seconds left.
The moment felt familiar to longtime Minnesota fans. The Vikings had blown another golden opportunity, this time a chance to preserve their hopes of becoming the first team to appear in a Super Bowl at their home stadium. Their vaunted defense collapsed at the worst possible time, and their once-easy victory had turned into their latest nightmare. Another heartbreak seemed assured.
Instead, the unimaginable unfolded.
After exhausting their timeouts and failing to reach midfield, the Vikings had just 10 seconds left to score. Hoping merely to connect with a receiver downfield near the sideline to set up a last-second field goal, Keenum sailed a pass toward the right boundary. There, Stefon Diggs hauled in a pass, managing to remain upright as Williams, the same defensive back who picked off Keenum earlier, whiffed on the tackle. With nobody behind him, Diggs raced into the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown as time expired, stamping Minnesota's ticket to the NFC championship game.
No team expects to succeed in that situation, let alone the hard-luck Vikings. ESPN Stats and Info estimates Minnesota's win probability before the play at a mere 2.6 percent. The catch itself required Diggs to fully extend into the air with defenders in front of and behind him. Even after Diggs gained control of the ball, both Saints should have had the opportunity to stop him in bounds with the clock running or at least force him out. Instead, Williams rolled into Ken Crawley, removing both from the play and leaving Diggs a clear path to the end zone, an unlikely and uncharacteristic failure for a vastly improved New Orleans defense.
Vikings-Saints was the first game in NFL playoff history to end on a game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter@Vikings- NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 15, 2018
Vikings-Saints featured three lead changes in the final 90 seconds of regulation, the most lead changes in the final 90 seconds of any game this season, including playoffs- NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 15, 2018
Rarely does a team win a playoff game in such dramatic fashion. Even rarer do the Vikings pull off such a feat. Now, they travel to take on the No. 1 seeded Eagles with a trip to Super Bowl LII on the line.
One divisional-round game does not erase a long history of playoff misfortune. A letdown against the Carson Wentz-less Eagles could await the Vikings next Sunday. Still, even if only for a week, Minnesota broke the cycle of heartbreak that has defined the franchise for decades.