An exceptional medley of great awareness, terrific balance and deft reflexes allowed Stefon Diggs to ad lib and seize both the ball and the moment in the Vikings’ demon-exorcising “Minneapolis Miracle.”
Diggs was supposed to go out of bounds if Case Keenum threw his way on the play dubbed “Seven Heaven,” although in countless rehearsals at practice never did the pass go to the deep receiver, according to teammate Jarius Wright.
Ten seconds and no timeouts remained when Keenum dropped back from his 39 on third-and-10 in the hushed U.S. Bank Stadium, another haunting playoff heartbreak looming for Minnesota. New Orleans had taken a 24-23 lead just 15 seconds earlier.
The Saints had three defensive backs guarding the sideline as Kyle Rudolph, Wright and Diggs all ran sideline routes from the right of their formation.
Diggs was the deepest, with his break coming at about 25 yards, and just as he swiveled his hips he noticed nothing but green grass and purple end zone behind rookie free safety Marcus Williams, who was closing fast.
Diggs turned back to see the ball heading his way.
“I was thinking, ‘Catch it, get out of bounds and maybe kick a field goal,” Diggs said. “I took a picture before I turned around to catch the ball. There was only one guy there. If he slipped, then I was going to try to stay up and keep it going.”
Williams, who had a key interception on a floater to Diggs in the third quarter, arrived a tad early. A pass interference flag would stop the clock with about 5 seconds left, giving the Vikings a chance at a field goal.
Williams awkwardly whiffed on Diggs, taking out cornerback Ken Crawley as Diggs came down, tucked the ball in his right arm and stuck his left hand in the turf to stay up.
If he stumbles there, maybe he gets caught and time runs out. But he kept his balance, his cool — and stayed in bounds — shooting toward the end zone like a sprinter coming out of the blocks.
His 61-yard touchdown catch was one of the NFL’s all-time last-play stunners and it erased four decades of heartache for a franchise that was victimized by Drew Pearson’s original “Hail Mary” catch; Gary Anderson missing his only field goal of the season in the NFC title game; Brett Favre throwing across his body for a game-destroying pick in another NFC championship contest; and Blair Walsh shanking a short field goal against Seattle.
While the delirium echoed, Williams, the 42nd overall selection in last April’s NFL draft, sat sobbing in front of his cubicle in the Saints’ locker room.
“I’m going to take it upon myself,” Williams said after composing himself for a stand-up performance in front of the assembled media, “to make sure nothing like this happens again to me.”