What. A. Game.
Now that we’re just over 24 hours removed, has everyone’s heart rate and blood pressure finally returned to their regular levels? I can’t be certain that I’m back to normal quite yet, but I can finally type without surges of adrenaline throwing my fingers off the keys.
For the second time in three seasons, the Vikings eliminated the Saints from the postseason with a touchdown on the final play of the game. From the opening kickoff, it was a thrill ride that dwarfed anything found in amusement parks. Narratives for team, coach, and player alike flew back and forth throughout the afternoon like Valleyfair’s Xtreme Swing. Both fan bases were convinced that their team was positively doomed at least a half dozen different times throughout the contest. Somehow, the Vikings were able to escape with a victory.
Very few people predicted a Vikings win, and yours truly wasn’t among them. I thought the Vikings were certainly capable of beating the Saints in hostile territory, but I didn’t think they would actually be able to put together a performance on both sides of the ball that was worthy of a win. To pull off the upset, they would need to keep Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara in check. They would need to create consistent pressure and force turnovers from a team that allowed next to nothing of either throughout the season. They would need to give Dalvin Cook a lot of touches, control the time of possession, and win on third down. Checking a few of those boxes was possible, but going through the whole list seemed infeasible.
Sometimes, being wrong kicks ass.
The Vikings ended up +1 in the turnover battle, becoming the first team to force multiple Saints turnovers in a game this season. They had the ball for nearly ten more minutes and ran 23 more plays than New Orleans. They held Thomas to a mortal total of seven catches for 70 yards. Kamara had 55 yards from scrimmage on 15 touches. They sacked Brees three times and held him to a season-low 5.55 adjusted yards per attempt. (His season average was 8.8.) The Vikings went 10 for 18 on third down and held the Saints to 4 of 11 conversions.
Mike Zimmer was faced with the daunting task of keeping the Saints offense in check despite missing the services of Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes. Zimmer answered with the surprising move of putting veteran safety Andrew Sendejo in the slot for over 30 snaps, and it paid dividends.
The Saints boasted the best pass blocking in the league thanks to their excellent tackles. Zimmer put Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter at defensive tackle for a handful of snaps to create pressure up the middle and short circuit Brees’ timing. Outside of a handful of plays that made Taysom Hill look like the greatest football player of all time, Zimmer’s defense kept the high-scoring Saints in check for most of the day. After a week of speculation about his future with the team that Zimmer rightfully called “silly” after the game, the Vikings Head Coach silenced his vociferous critics just like his team had silenced the raucous Superdome crowd.
The reward for their hard-fought victory: a trip to Santa Clara to take on the NFC’s top seed, the San Francisco 49ers. But before we start setting our gaze west for the Divisional round on Saturday afternoon, let’s look back at the game-changing plays from Sunday that made it possible.
Play 1: Saints ball, 3rd & goal at the Minnesota 4. First quarter, 10:33 remaining. (Shotgun) D.Brees sacked at MIN 11 for -7 yards (sack split by E.Griffen and D.Hunter).
The Vikings won the opening coin toss and elected to receive. I’m usually all for deferring, but I understood the thought process behind getting the ball first. The Vikings wanted to come out and set the tone early.
They did, but in the polar opposite way they intended. On the third play from scrimmage, Adam Thielen had the ball punched out by Janoris Jenkins. Vonn Bell recovered and the Saints took over in Vikings territory. Less than a minute in, Vikings fans had already donned the yoke of “here we go again” to pull the cart full of past heartbreaks. New Orleans quickly moved the ball and were four yards away from scoring an early touchdown that would send the home crowd into a frenzy.
Thankfully, Hunter and Griffen canceled the reservations for six.
Wil Lutz gave New Orleans an early lead on the next play, but the sack kept four points off the board while offering hope that the Vikings could indeed get through the Saints’ vaunted offensive line. The start of the game had been downgraded from “worst possible” to “bad.”
The Vikings answered with a field goal of their own on the next drive to tie the game. Then a defensive battle broke out in what most anticipated would be a shootout. New Orleans finally found the end zone just before the midpoint of the second quarter after a long pass that wasn’t thrown by Brees. Taysom Hill found Deonte Harris for 50 yards and Kamara scored on the next play to break the deadlock.
Once again, the Vikings answered a Saints score with one of their own, but they settled for a 21-yard Dan Bailey field goal after getting stuffed at the goal line. With just under three minutes left in the first half, the Saints had a chance to “double dip”—score before the half and get the ball back to start the third quarter.
Play 2: Saints ball, 3rd & 6 at the New Orleans 28. Second quarter, 2:18 remaining. (Shotgun) D.Brees pass deep middle intended for T.Ginn INTERCEPTED by A.Harris at MIN 25. A.Harris to NO 45 for 30 yards (A.Kamara).
There will be no double dipping on Anthony Harris’ watch.
Brees took a deep shot to Ted Ginn Jr., but the throw was ill-advised. Trae Waynes was stride for stride with Ginn while Harris swooped in underneath to make the interception. He also made the heads-up play to return the pick for 30 yards, setting up his offense with great field position right before the two-minute warning.
After a woeful start to the game that featured the fumble, a holding penalty, an uninspiring three-yard end around, and a dropped pass that would have gained 20 yards, Thielen finally started contributing to the positive side of the ledger just before half. Kirk Cousins found him for gains of 19 and 13 yards, including a third down grab while Thielen was falling down to set up 1st & goal. Dalvin Cook took care of the rest of the drive, including a 5-yard touchdown to give Minnesota their first lead of the day.
With only 23 seconds left, surely the Saints would just take a knee and the Vikings would go into halftime with the lead. Except this is the Vikings, and nothing can come easy, so Harris ran the kickoff back to the Minnesota 45 yard line. Brees hit Thomas for 20 yards, and out came Lutz for a 43-yard field goal to tie the game at the half.
Except...he missed it. The Saints Pro Bowl kicker, who had only missed four of 36 field goal attempts all year, shanked the kick right. The Vikings still led 13-10.
Whew. But there were still (more than) 30 extremely difficult minutes ahead.
Minnesota’s defense showed up early and often in the third quarter. After giving up a first down on the opening drive of the second half, Eric Kendricks and Jaleel Johnson combined to stop Kamara on third and short. The teams traded three-and-outs again. Stefon Diggs, who had zero official targets and only a sack on a thwarted trick play to his name at this point in the game, was visibly upset. Just past the midway point of the third quarter, the Vikings faced a crucial third down. Their three-point lead couldn’t have been more tenuous.
Play 3: Vikings ball, 3rd & 9 at the Minnesota 47. Third quarter, 6:15 remaining. (Shotgun) K.Cousins pass deep right to A.Thielen to NO 19 for 34 yards (M.Williams) [D.Davis].
For most of Cousins’ career, the knock on him was that he couldn’t make big plays when it matters most. For parts of this game, the Vikings quarterback was living up to that reputation with skittish play and conservative choices. But this was a good old fashioned big boy throw.
Cousins delivered an excellent pass while getting slugged by Demario Davis, and Thielen managed to find space between Marcus Williams and a dejected Marshon Lattimore for a huge 34-yard gain. Once in the red zone, Cousins found Olabisi Johnson and Diggs with two more pinpoint throws to get first & goal at the Saints 1. Two plays later, Dalvin Cook had his second touchdown and the Vikings had a 20-10 lead late in the third.
On the following series, the Saints faced 4th & 3 on their own 35. Before the play, I both tweeted and yelled aloud at the bar where I was watching the game:
WATCH FOR THE FAKE— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) January 5, 2020
Bonus play that didn’t actually happen 1: Saints ball, 4th & 3 at the New Orleans 35. Third quarter, 2:08 remaining. (Punt formation) PENALTY on NO-J.Hill, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at NO 35 - No Play.
Yep, it was a fake. Taysom Hill got the first down on the quick snap, but the play had already been blown dead due to a false start by Josh Hill.
Bullet dodged. New Orleans punted the ball away and the Vikings had a chance to make it a three score game.
They most certainly did not do that. Alexander Mattison for a loss of two yards, false start penalty on Riley Reiff, incomplete pass, harmless draw play. The Vikings punted on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But they still had a ten point lead. Then again, this is the Vikings, so confidence levels weren’t exactly through the roof.
#Vikings are up 10 going into the 4th quarter on the road in the playoffs against a 13-3 team.— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) January 5, 2020
So why do I feel like I'm dying?
Right on cue, the Saints roared back with an eight-play, 85 yard drive that took just over four minutes. Once again, Taysom Hill provided the biggest play, as he waltzed up the left sideline for a 20-yard touchdown.
The player tracking data shows that perhaps Harrison Smith was covering Alvin Kamara in the flat and thought Holton Hill was covering over the top. But Holton was covering Jared Cook instead of his fellow Hill, and just like that, the Saints were back to within three.
On the ensuing drive, the Vikings managed to get 15 yards, but Chauncey Gardner-Johnson made a nice defensive play to break up a deep pass from Cousins to Alexander Hollins and force a punt.
Seven minutes left. Saints ball. Gulp.
Taysom Hill direct snap. First down near midfield.
Taysom Hill direct snap. Gain of 28. They’re in the red zone. The Superdome crowd is losing it. I’m also losing it, in a very different way.
HOW THE HELL DO WE KEEP LETTING TAYSOM HILL DO THIS— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) January 5, 2020
The defense needs to make a play in the worst way. Stop the bleeding. Please.
Play 4: Saints ball, 1st & 10 at the Minnesota 20. Fourth quarter, 4:25 remaining. (Shotgun) D.Brees sacked at MIN 28 for -8 yards (D.Hunter). FUMBLES (D.Hunter) [D.Hunter], touched at MIN 34, RECOVERED by MIN-J.Holmes at MIN 36. J.Holmes to MIN 37 for 1 yard (R.Ramczyk).
Danielle Hunter, professional tourniquet.
Hunter blew past All-Pro trackle Ryan Ramczyk and strip-sacked Brees. Jalyn Holmes recovered. The Vikings had a golden opportunity to grind out the clock and finish off the victory.
They most certainly did not do that. Thielen had a third down grab that converted despite a questionable spot, but then it looked like disaster struck.
Bonus play that didn’t actually happen 2: Vikings ball, 1st & 10 at the Minnesota 47. Fourth quarter, 3:27 remaining. D.Cook left end to MIN 39 for -8 yards (A.Klein). FUMBLES (A.Klein), RECOVERED by NO-V.Bell at MIN 38. V.Bell for 38 yards, TOUCHDOWN. The Replay Official reviewed the runner was not down by contact ruling, and the play was REVERSED. D.Cook left end to MIN 40 for -7 yards (A.Klein).
Oh no. Not like this.
Bell scooped up a Cook fumble that popped right into his hands and New Orleans seemingly took the lead. The crowd was completely unhinged. But mercifully, Cook’s knee was correctly ruled down on replay. The Vikings had survived the scare with a seven yard loss instead of a soul-crushing turnover.
But they hadn’t survived the Saints yet. The Vikings went backwards on their next two plays and had punted at the two-minute warning. New Orleans took over at their own 30 with 1:55 remaining and one timeout.
Brees to Kamara for six. Brees to Cook for eight. Brees to Kamara for nine. Brees to Thomas for seven.
They’re already at the Vikings 40. This felt familiar.
Brees to Cook for 14. In field goal range. They still had that timeout left, but they were going to spike the ball instead.
But they weren’t lined up correctly! False start and a ten-second runoff. The Saints didn’t elect to use their timeout to prevent the runoff! One short incomplete pass, and suddenly there were only seven seconds left.
To be honest, the Saints botched the end of regulation pretty badly. Cook was tackled with 33 seconds remaining, and they ran only one failed screen pass before the field goal attempt with a timeout still remaining. As a Vikings fan, I felt relieved that New Orleans wasn’t able to take a single shot at the end zone.
Unfortunately, Wil Lutz wasn’t up to doing his best Blair Walsh impression. He nailed his 49-yard field goal. Once again, we were heading to overtime in a playoff game in New Orleans.
Ten years ago, the Saints won the overtime coin toss. The Vikings never touched the ball again. This time, the Vikings got the benefit of random chance to start the extra period.
If ever there was a drive for Cousins to prove himself and dispel some of the negatives that have swirled around him throughout his time in the NFL, this was it.
On a 3rd & 1 to open the drive, he found Diggs for 10 yards on a slant. So far, so good.
After Cook had a nifty 11-yard run to get into Saints territory, Cousins finally made a signature big-time throw in the highest of high-pressure situations.
Play 5A: Vikings ball, 1st & 10 at the New Orleans 45. Overtime, 12:42 remaining. K.Cousins pass deep right to A.Thielen to NO 2 for 43 yards (P.Robinson).
Play action to third round rookie Mattison. Clean pocket provided by a revamped offensive line. Deep throw to a star wide receiver that got a big contract extension. It’s the play that the Vikings had been building toward since they were unceremoniously booted out of playoff contention in December 2018. And it worked. Thielen beat Patrick Robinson and Cousins delivered a deep strike to put the Vikings a mere two yards away from the upset.
But they still needed those two yards. A field goal would give Brees another chance. After two Cook runs moved the Vikings backwards two yards, twelve incredibly long feet stood between them and glory.
Play 5B: Vikings ball, 3rd & goal at the New Orleans 4. Overtime, 10:45 remaining. (Shotgun) K.Cousins pass short left to K.Rudolph for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Ball game. See ya, Saints. Let’s head to San Francisco.
The Saints brought a zero blitz, leaving Kyle Rudolph one-on-one with P.J. Williams in the corner of the end zone. Cousins got the throw off in time and gave his big tight end a chance to make a play. And that’s exactly what he did. The Vikings’ Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate scored his team’s touchdown of the year. (So far.)
Was there contact and hand fighting from both sides? Sure. But Sean Payton can only get so many rules changed after games don’t go his way. The play was reviewed and upheld. It’s still tackle football after all.
Taking on the 49ers five days from now is no easy task, but the Vikings have shown they can hang with anyone when they’re playing well. We all get at least one more ticket for the thrill ride.
In the meantime, time to go get a prescription for beta blockers before Saturday. My heart can only take so much.
As always, we welcome you to vote in the poll to tell us which play you thought was the biggest and encourage you to suggest any we may have missed in the comments.
What was the most important play from the Vikings’ win over the Saints?
This poll is closed
Griffen and Hunter’s sack after the opening fumble
Harris’ interception late in the first half
Cousins to Thielen on third down to set up Cook’s second TD
Hunter’s strip-sack in the fourth quarter
Cousins to Thielen for 43 yards in overtime
Rudolph’s game-winning TD
Other (comment below)