The play, “Seven Heaven,” was one the Vikings have practiced hundreds of times, in the tedium of summer workouts meant to ready this team for the instances that have left decades-long scars on its fanbase.
The tormented history of the Vikings can be written through failure in 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 state’s collective sports psyche.
But with 10 seconds left 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 victory over the Saints, delivered the kind of euphoric moment 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 pattern — given the number 7 in the route tree developed by Don Coryell — at the Saints 34-yard line. Diggs snared the ball, expecting Saints safety Marcus Williams to hit him as he landed. Instead, as Williams dove at the air beneath him, Diggs stumbled forward, regained his balance and sprinted 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 [Sunday].”
Diggs’ catch was the first touchdown in NFL playoff history to win a game 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.
“We should celebrate this and enjoy this,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It’s hard to win playoff games. There’s a lot of guys in this locker room, including myself, this is our first playoff win. But it’s just the beginning. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. It’d be a shame to let something like that go to waste by us not showing up.”
It strained credulity — the Vikings led 17-0 at halftime — to suggest this victory would be one they’d have to pull back from the brink.
They forced Drew Brees into two first-half interceptions while limiting the former Super Bowl MVP to 117 yards on 8-of-18 passing. Three drives — all of them at least seven plays — helped the Vikings construct the lead, as noise levels at U.S. Bank Stadium touched 118 decibels.
But in the second half, a team that has coolly brushed off the agony of its ancestors suddenly seemed destined to receive it as an heirloom.
One play after the Saints’ first TD, Keenum’s backpedaling interception put the Saints in position to score again. As New Orleans pulled within three early in the fourth quarter, the raucous crowd drew inward, silently revisiting its worst nightmares.
And the special-teams play — isn’t there always a special-teams play? — that appeared destined to doom the Vikings came with 5:28 to go.
Former Vikings defensive end George Johnson got a piece of Ryan Quigley’s punt, and former Vikings linebacker Gerald Hodges recovered it, setting up a Saints drive that gave New Orleans a 21-20 lead on a Brees-to-Alvin Kamara touchdown pass. Improbably, the Vikings would need a late comeback. Twice.
Keenum’s threw off his back foot to Adam Thielen, hitting the receiver for 24 yards in front of the Vikings’ bench. Zimmer slapped Thielen on the backside, and Kai Forbath drilled a 53-yard field goal to put the Vikings up 23-21 with 1:29 left — too much time, even after a cold-blooded kick, to assume victory.
Brees found tight end Josh Hill for 18 yards, hit Ted Ginn Jr. for 11, and on fourth-and-10, the quarterback drilled a sideline throw to Snead for 13 yards, beating Mackensie Alexander to keep the Saints’ season alive. Lutz split the uprights from 43 yards out to put New Orleans up 24-23 with 25 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].”
Players professed speechlessness in the locker room. Zimmer asked for the curtains to be raised on his postgame news conference for the first time all season, stopping a handful of times to pump his fist as fans who looked on through glass windows chanted his name. Diggs cradled the ball from his touchdown catch in the conference room, sprinting back in once the session had concluded and he’d realized he left it at the podium.
And former Vikings coach Mike Tice — who absorbed the 1998 and 2000 NFC title game defeats as an assistant, and the Nate Poole catch in 2003 as a head coach — sent Vikings executive PR director Bob Hagan a text, telling him to congratulate Zimmer.
“This one,” the text read, “makes up for a couple [of the losses].”
It also means a dogged team continues on its path, two victories away from making the ghosts disappear forever.