MINNEAPOLIS — Oh, the pain.
First, it was a mauling.
Then it was a miracle. For the Minnesota Vikings.
For the New Orleans Saints, it seemed destined from the start that this one was going to hurt.
But not like this. Was there ever anything quite as bad as this? Down 17-0 at halftime, the Saints fought and clawed and never gave up, rallying with a great pass here, a turnover there, a blocked punt and one apparent game-winning 43-yard field goal by Wil Lutz with 25 seconds left for a 24-23 lead.
Plenty of time, as it turned out. Plenty of time to be left gutted, bewildered and sprawled helplessly across the U.S. Bank Stadium turf as Stefon Diggs sprinted into the end zone as time ran out on a stupefying 29-24 Vikings victory.
Journalistic standards dictate we recount the game’s last play, though it’s going to be rerun over and over, a Saints fan’s déjà vu nightmare, for a long time to come.
Third down-and-10, Minnesota at its 39-yard line, trailing New Orleans 24-23. No timeouts left on either side. Hardly any hope left for the Vikings, either. They were seconds away from completing one of the great choke jobs in NFL playoff history, while the Saints had one foot out the door to begin the trek to Philadelphia for this Sunday’s NFC championship game.
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum lobbed a mortar shell up the right sideline in Diggs’ direction, a pass not unlike the 39-yard game-winner Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston threw to Chris Godwin to beat the Saints on New Year’s Eve in their regular-season finale.
No harm done, as it turned out. The Atlanta Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers at the same time to ensure the Saints’ NFC South championship.
But this loss stung with brutal finality, like a love affair that ends when someone least expects it.
Saints safety Marcus Williams, who for 59 minutes, 55 seconds was having a great game with five tackles and a leaping interception to set up his team's second touchdown, lowered his head as Diggs climbed high into the domed airspace for Keenum’s pass. Williams appeared to miss him completely, like a bull going vainly for the matador’s cape, but he managed to take out Saints cornerback Ken Crawley and end any hope either one could bring Diggs down.
The Viking almost stumbled out of bounds at the 30, but caught himself and sped into the end zone untouched. There was a review, and bizarrely enough an extra-point attempt (NFL rules require it; Keenum took a knee), but it only prolonged the inevitable. The only way the Saints were going to get to Philly at that point was to buy a ticket.
“I can’t even explain it,” Keenum said as he was interviewed by Fox and former New Orleans sportscaster Chris Myers with bedlam still erupting around him. “We were definitely in desperation mode. Just tried to give my guys a chance. And Digsy (Diggs) just made a heck of a play.
Um, yeah. That’s a word for it. There are others, and they were howled in anguish across the Gulf Coast I’m sure. But to quote the late Ben Bradlee, this is a family newspaper (and website).
After it was over, as the 66,000-plus Minnesota faithful danced into that snowy Arctic night outside without even feeling the cold, Diggs knelt in the corner of the other end zone, the one where Lutz’s apparent game-winner crossed over moments earlier. And he kissed the purple turf.
If the Vikings play their cards right in Philly, they’ll be back on this turf Feb. 4 as the first team in the 52-year history of the Super Bowl to play in pro football’s ultimate game in their home stadium.
"I couldn't believe it, really," Diggs said. "It's plays like that you dream about your whole life and finally it happens."
If you possess any measure of humanity, you have to feel for Williams. He didn’t want to blow the last play, he truly did not. Afterward, Williams faced the media in a funeral Saints locker room, exhibiting an exceptional amount of character and maturity for someone so young in such circumstances.
"The ball was in the air; I didn't go attack it," Williams said. "As the safety back there, you've got to be the eraser. That was my job. The last play of the game, you've got to go do it, and you've got to save the game."
Williams is guilty of going for the hit and not the tackle. That's bad form, though standard for modern-day football. He should have wrapped Diggs up right at the Saints 34, where he caught the pass with about five seconds left.
In Williams’ defense, even a textbook tackle might not have kept Diggs from lunging out of bounds to stop the clock with a tick or two left. If he does, Kai Forbath, who drilled a clutch 53-yard field goal with 1:29 left for a 23-21 Vikings lead, would have come on for what probably would have been a 52-yarder.
It wasn’t necessary. And now the Saints season that for much of it looked as filled with destiny as did their 2009 Super Bowl championship season is over.
"It wasn't just him. I could have made more tackles," said Saints linebacker Manti Te'o (he had 10). "I could have done a lot of stuff.
"I'm glad he's my safety."
This was a season of great accomplishment for the Saints, who with some of their young stars like Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Michael Thomas — and Williams — plus some good years still under Brees’ belt could be poised for more great things in the near future.
For now though, this one will hurt. Like maybe nothing in the history of the Saints’ franchise ever has.