Minneapolis – This one stings.
The New Orleans Saints' season ended in one of the most painful ways imaginable, a walk-off, 61-yard touchdown in the NFC Division Round of the playoffs, the end result being a 29-24 Vikings victory at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
New Orleans (12-6) showed a ton of grit and resolve after falling behind 17-0 at halftime, and scored 24 second-half points – 17 in the fourth quarter – against a Vikings defense that allowed 15.8 points per game during the regular season. But one last slip-up – rookie safety Marcus Williams, the last line of defense, whiffed on a tackle attempt that allowed receiver Stefon Diggs to sprint untouched to the end zone for the final 30 yards or so, as time expired – undid the comeback and sent the Saints into the offseason.
OFFENSE: After a scoreless first-half showing that only can be termed miserable – 149 yards, two interceptions, 0-for-4 on third down and 0-for-1 in the red zone – the Saints owned Minnesota's vaunted defense in the second half. They totaled 209 yards, were perfect on three red-zone trips and didn't commit a turnover. And, also, quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Michael Thomas were outstanding. Brees completed 17 of 22 passes in the second half for 177 yards and three touchdowns, and Thomas caught five of his seven passes, for 54 of his 85 yards, and two touchdowns, the second of which pulled New Orleans to within 17-14. The Saints ran the ball enough (24 carries for 80 yards) to keep the Vikings honest, and the offensive line held up well against a fierce rush (Brees was sacked twice). The two interceptions hurt, especially the one that occurred in the red zone, on second-and-9 from the Vikings' 14 in the second quarter. But New Orleans overcame those hiccups to get in position to win.
DEFENSE: Ten seconds. That's the amount of time that remained on the clock between a Saints trip to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game, and not. That third-and-10 play, from the Vikings' 39-yard line, is one that won't soon be forgotten. Williams is the man who'll be saddled with the blame, but there were enough dirty hands in this one for him to not be cast as the sole reason. Forgotten will be the fact that the Saints were rocky at the beginning and crumbled on the last play, but were outstanding for almost all of the second half. After surrendering 17 points and 169 yards in the first two quarters, New Orleans buckled down and allowed six points and 173 yards for the first 29 minutes, 50 seconds of the second half. The Saints applied more pressure to Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, and Williams' interception near the end of the third quarter set up the drive that led to Brees' second touchdown pass to Thomas. Give an assist to defensive end Cam Jordan, whose pressure forced the errant throw. The game-winning score will be a tough play to live down, and one that should fuel Williams, who had a fantastic rookie season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Really, outstanding day from the unit. Punter Thomas Morstead probably made a touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter, defensive lineman George Johnson deflected punt in the fourth quarter to set up Brees' final touchdown pass (a 14-yarder to Alvin Kamara that gave the Saints a 21-20 lead), and Wil Lutz nailed a clutch, 43-yard field goal that gave the Saints their 24-23 lead with 25 seconds left. Lutz missed a 58-yard attempt, and Arthur Maulet missed the tackle that set in motion the chain of events that led Morstead to make his stop. But otherwise, it was a good day.