MINNEAPOLIS -- In the moment, all hope seemed lost.
Down a point with 25 seconds left and 75 yards from the end zone, the Minnesota Vikings were on the cusp of doing what the Minnesota Vikings always do: Lose the big game, and lose it the most painful way possible. Three plays later, they sat at their own 39-yard line, now 10 seconds on the clock and with no more timeouts.
"In that situation," longtime Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said, "it's hard to have hope."
But miracles can only happen in the moments that seem the most hopeless, right?
And if you're looking to exorcise a lifetime's worth of demons -- from four lost Super Bowls to Gary Anderson's wide left to Brett Favre's interception to Blair Walsh's chunked field goal -- a hopeless situation like seems a fine place to start.
The Vikings had played a near-flawless first half against the New Orleans Saints in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game, smothering the Saints on defense, forcing future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees into two interceptions, and methodically marching down the field with this diverse and balanced offense.
Then they blew their 17-point halftime lead by playing sloppy football throughout the second half. Quarterback Case Keenum, who had gone undrafted out of college and was playing in his first playoff game, took a bad sack on a manageable third down. It knocked the Vikings out of field-goal range; that led to a methodical 80-yard Brees-led drive that gave the Saints their first touchdown.
On the first play of their next drive came an ugly Keenum interception. Instead of taking a sack like he should have, he threw an off-balance lollipop into double coverage, which was intercepted by Saints cornerback Marcus Williams. That gifted the Saints a short field, which quickly became seven more points.
A couple minutes into the fourth quarter and it was now only 17-14 Vikings. The air had gone out of what had been a rollicking U.S. Bank Stadium. Instead of the 119.8 decibels these fans were registering on the scoreboard at points of this game, you could sense a queasy sports-fan version of post-traumatic stress disorder. The feeling was the wheels were coming off for the Vikings, just like they always do. Fatalistic Viking fans had finally, during a season that saw them lose their starting quarterback and promising rookie running back, begun to feel that this season would be their season. The first half buttressed that feeling. The second half reminded them that they are Vikings fans.
With a bit over five minutes left and the Vikings clinging to a six-point lead came a blocked punt. George Johnson, the Saints backup defensive end, burst through the line of scrimmage and got a hand on Ryan Quigley's punt, which died at the Saints' 40-yard line and gifted them another short field. Four plays and 2:20 later, Brees feathered a beautiful pass over the arms of Eric Kendricks and into the hands of Alvin Kamara to put the Saints up one with three minutes left. The Vikings drove for a field goal -- a 53-yarder by Kai Forbath -- but left too much time on the clock. Brees got the ball all the way to midfield before missing on three straight passes to Michael Thomas. Then he completed a fourth-and-10 pass to Willie Snead, which led to a field goal with 25 seconds left, which led to the loss of all Vikings' hope.
Or most of it, at least.
"We're going to win this game," nose tackle Linval Joseph told head coach Mike Zimmer on the sidelines.
A false start penalty knocked the Vikings back to their own 20. A Keenum pass up the middle to Stefon Diggs and a quick Vikings timeout meant the ball at their own 39 with 18 seconds left. Two incomplete passes brought the Vikings to this: Ten seconds and no timeouts left, in need of some sort of miracle. One last chance.
"I don't care what's called," wide receiver Adam Thielen told his teammates. "Just make it work."
Keenum called the play in the huddle. "We got this," he told his teammates. The play was Seven Heaven, something they had practiced a million times before.
As they broke the huddle, Keenum looked at his teammates. "I'm going to give somebody a chance," he told them.
"I was hoping it was me," Diggs said later.
On one sideline, Saints wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. assumed the game was already over. On the other sideline, Vikings players prayed. Maybe God cared about the outcome of this game; maybe He didn't. It never hurts to try.
"Your head is still trying to hold on to whatever hope you got," Robison said. "You have no control over it. So you hope, and you wish."
The ball was snapped. The crowd fell silent. Keenum dropped back. Tight end Kyle Rudolph jetted out to the flat on the right side of the field and sucked up one Saints cornerback. Diggs sprinted toward the sideline. Keenum gunned it: "Just trying to give a guy a chance," he said later. The plan was for Diggs to catch it near the sideline and scramble out of bounds. That's what Keenum expected him to do: Go out of bounds, and then offensive players would yell "MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY," and then the field-goal unit would sprint out for one final shot to win.
"I took a picture before I turned around to catch the ball," Diggs said. "There was only one guy there."
The one guy was Saints rookie free safety Marcus Williams. Diggs jumped and caught Keenum's perfectly placed ball. Williams went low for the tackle -- and whiffed. Instead of hitting Diggs, Williams hit his teammate, Saints cornerback Ken Crawley, who was the only other Saint close to the play. Diggs felt Williams brush past him. For a moment, Diggs lost his footing; he'd been bracing for contact, and there'd been none. Then, the ball in his right hand, he pushed off the turf with his left hand. Nobody was between Diggs and the end zone. Instead of jumping out of bounds, he sprinted to the end zone. In the stands, his younger brother, Trevon Diggs – who had won a national championship with Alabama earlier in the week -- couldn't believe it. It was the first NFL game he'd attended in person. None of the 66,612 people inside the stadium could believe it. Even the man who caught the ball couldn't believe it.
"It's plays like this you dream for your whole life," Diggs said. "Finally, it happened."
Finally, the demons of a franchise were exorcised. Because the only way to exorcise this many demons is to do so with this kind of play. It was a play that, if the Vikings win the Super Bowl -- which will be held in three weeks in this very stadium -- will go down in football lore as one of the great plays of all time. It will be the Immaculate Reception, the Doug Flutie Hail Mary, The Catch from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, and ... the Minnesota Miracle?
Diggs held the ball in the air when he crossed into the end zone. He threw the ball to the side. Then he tore off his helmet and threw it, too. Vikings wide receiver Jarius Wright grabbed the ball, knowing it was part of history; later, he would give it to Diggs. Diggs held out his arms as his teammates sprinted at him. "They all laid on me, and I almost passed out," Diggs said. "They are some heavy guys, and I don't weigh that much. I was trying to catch my breath."
Keenum ran around the field, Jim Valvano-like. "I was looking for people to hug," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to get all the way to Diggsy. But linemen, anybody, anybody that was close enough, just yelling and screaming at each other."
Afterward, you could feel the sense of relief from the players and from the fans. It was as if something miraculous had happened, and this franchise was shocked to be on the receiving side of such a miracle. As Zimmer answered questions at his press conference, fans pressed their faces to a wall of frosted glass. They chanted, "Zimmer! Zimmer!" "This is the best press conference ever," Zimmer said. "Can you guys bring me a beer?"
At his locker, Diggs sat with his head down, cradling the ball. Ever since Wright brought it back to him, he wouldn't let go of that ball.
To Keenum it still didn't quite seem real. "Fourth quarter, playoffs, Drew Brees is the quarterback for the other team – that's what you dream about."
For many players, their voices were still quavering. A season filled with promise seemed that it was over. And then it wasn't. Robison sat at his locker, holding his son's hand. Robison's eyes were red. He'd already cried three times since Diggs crossed into the end zone.
"Just a rollercoaster of emotions: You're up, you're back down, you're up, you're back down," he said. "It just was one of those games where you didn't know what was going to happen until zeroes on the clock."
Then, loud enough so his son would hear, Robison put it all in perspective. Sports are sports; ultimately, they are meaningless, or at least the outcomes are. God doesn't care who won on Sunday. But sports reflect ourselves. And they teach us about life. And there was a life lesson here, for a team that seemed to have blown their opportunity, for a fan base that has long seemed cursed, for Robison's son, who was listening to his dad.
"The life lesson," Robison said, "is you never give up, not until the very end."