The Vikings entered the divisional round of the playoffs as the home team and the favorite, which didn't quite seem fitting for a team well past its days of megastar offensive players like Randy Moss, Daunte Culpepper, and Adrian Peterson. By the last play of the game though, Minnesota had managed to find a way to stack the deck against themselves to the point of it being a virtual certainty that they would lose.
However, the franchise that has had almost every pivotal moment in their history go against them somehow found a way to advance to the NFC Championship – not because they should be here, but because they are a team made up of people who were told they could not be here.
I don't know if any team "deserves" a break, but the Vikings certainly got one and they are one win away from their first Super Bowl in 41 years.
So many key players and coaches on Minnesota's roster have a backstory that involves being overlooked, written off and doubted. Just like the Vikings had been in the final seconds of their divisional round game, except they usually don't find a way to do this:
The player who threw the game-winning pass was Case Keenum, the 46th-highest paid quarterback in the league. Keenum is the NCAA's all-time leading passer but went undrafted because he was too small, had a major injury and played in a spread offense. For five years, he bounced between the Texans and Rams like an unfortunate product of divorce with parents in different cities.
Keenum went 9-15 in 24 starts and signed a one-year deal for $1.9 million with the Vikings to backup Sam Bradford, who made $18 million this season and was only acquired after franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee in a non-contact injury a year earlier. Keenum would have never taken over if not for an injury to Bradford that occurred before their Week 2 game against the Steelers, but he did and by all measures played like a top-10 quarterback on the season. The Saints held him out of the end zone for 59 minutes and 50 seconds, but Keenum proved he can make a big time throw in a way that many quarterbacks have not.
The player who caught the ball was Stefon Diggs, the 146th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Diggs went after 18 other receivers, including four who did not play in 2017. He played through a lacerated kidney during his last game at Maryland, and Minnesota quarterbacks coach Scott Turner begged for the team to go get him. As a rookie, he'd run routes by himself after dark in an effort to prove he wouldn’t be an example of wasted talent and that he was better than his fifth-round status. The only four players with at least 200 catches, 8 yards per target, and a 67% catch rate since 2015 are Antonio Brown, Travis Kelce, Doug Baldwin and Diggs.
The player who told Diggs to "Make it work" before the historic moment was Adam Thielen, who had six catches for 74 yards, including a critical leaping grab in the fourth quarter. Thielen played at Minnesota State and was not invited to the scouting combine in 2013, which basically means he wasn't even viewed among the top 333 players for the draft. He nearly found a job selling dental equipment, but then signed after a tryout with the Vikings. Thielen caught just 20 passes in his first three years, then emerged as a starter in 2016 and made the Pro Bowl this season after catching 91 passes for 1,276 yards.
You can find similar stories on a defense that allowed fewer points and yards than any other team in the league.
That starts with Harrison Smith, the safety who could win Defensive Player of the Year but still got snubbed from the Pro Bowl. Alongside him is All-Pro Xavier Rhodes, who is only now starting to get nationally recognized as perhaps the best corner in the NFL. Next to them is Andrew Sendejo, the strong safety who had an interception and then was knocked out of Sunday’s game with a concussion. Sendejo played college football at Rice – who indeed has a football team – and spent his first professional season with the Sacramento Mountain Lions in the UFL. He bounced around with the Cowboys and Jets before signing with the Vikings in 2011, starting 42 games in the last three years.
Also working to hold the Saints to 24 points was Everson Griffen, a former fourth round pick who had 13 sacks in the regular season and got to Drew Brees once on Sunday. Griffen saw 99 names called in the 2010 draft before his, and he was described by at least one analyst as a prospect with "average height ... maxed out his frame … lacks competitiveness at times and doesn’t always play with high intensity." He has made three straight Pro Bowls and has the fourth-most sacks since 2014.
The coach nearly wasn't supposed to be here either.
Mike Zimmer spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator with Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati; much longer than most coordinators ever last, but Zimmer was consistently passed up for head coaching jobs because he was thought to be "too brash." Zimmer interviewed with the Vikings in 2014, but considered not returning for a second interview because he felt he may have been too old at 57 and perhaps was not a great fit for the franchise. "It was like, 'Why even do this?,'" he said at the time to FOX Sports. "It was to that point. I figured I was getting too old. It thought, 'Forget this.'"
Eventually Zimmer was offered and accepted the job and had the Vikings at 11-5 and in the playoffs in his second year. That's where we were also reminded that Minnesota has been unfathomably unfortunate in the postseason.
The Vikings released K Blair Walsh today. Here's his missed 27 yard game-winning FG from last years playoffs. https://t.co/yOr9oAfyzn— GB Packers Daily (@GBPdaily) November 15, 2016
The Vikings went to four of the first 11 Super Bowls, against four different franchises, and they lost them all. Beyond their 0-4 record in championship games, they also have these playoff miseries: In the 1975 divisional round, the Vikings lost on a Hail Mary from midfield by the Cowboys. In the 1987 NFC Championship, the Vikings were a dropped touchdown pass from tying Washington in the final minute. The 1998, the Vikings went 15-1 and led the Falcons 27-17 in the fourth quarter, but Gary Anderson, who was 35-of-35 on tries in the regular season, missed a would-be game-winning field goal from 38 yards out. The Falcons tied the game, forced overtime, and won 30-27. In the 2009 NFC Championship, after Brett Favre had thrown just seven interceptions in the regular season, he was picked off with 19 seconds remaining, killing the Vikings chance of a game-winning field goal. They lost to the Saints in overtime.
On Sunday, the Vikings had practically too much in their favor and things were setting up for disappointment. Like being a perennial Super Bowl contender in the Seventies, going 15-1, or having Favre at home in 2009, there was reason to believe that Minnesota would beat the Saints and move onto the NFC Championship in Philadelphia, especially after they led 17-0 late in the third quarter, which meant that it was almost certain they would find a way to lose.
The Vikings blew their 17-0 lead to trail 21-20 with 3:01 remaining, then blew the 23-21 lead they had with only :89 seconds on the clock. There were only 25 seconds left when they gave the ball to the undrafted quarterback, who was only there because the other guy – who was replacing another guy – got hurt. His throw was more than a prayer. It was perfectly thrown for Diggs to get out of bounds and setup a field goal try, but this time it was the team on the other side that ended up making the heartbreaking mistake.
For years, people like Zimmer, Keenum, Diggs and Thielen have been doubted, but that can only last so long. At a certain point, you may just be undeniable, unstoppable and undoubtable. For two more games, can the Vikings be unbeatable?