Minneapolis – Four lead changes, in the final 3:01, tells you the kind of game that was the New Orleans Saints' 29-24, season-ending loss to the Vikings in their NFC Divisional Round playoff game Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. It also is a good indicator that there were some players of note who emerged in the second half, as the Saints rallied from their 17-0 halftime deficit.
OFFENSE: For Drew Brees, the first half couldn't have gone much worse. He completed eight of 18 passes for 117 yards and two interceptions, one of them a tipped ball in the red zone that took points off the board for the Saints. But in the second half, he was unflappable and unstoppable against a defense that makes offenses flappable and stoppable. Brees completed 17 of 22 passes in the final two quarters, for 177 yards and three touchdowns. And he maneuvered the offense into position to kick a lead-taking, 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left that dared to allow Saints fans to dream of a trip to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game next Sunday. Entering the game, Minnesota only allowed 15.8 points per game; the Saints scored 17 in the fourth quarter. Brees dropped a couple of over-the-top, from-the-rafter touchdown passes to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara that were perfect. He said afterward that this team is in a window of opportunity; his play was integral to keeping open the window against Minnesota.
DEFENSE: The defensive start (17 first-half points, Minnesota converting five of eight third-down chances) almost was as rocky as was the offense's. But defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was a major factor in the second half, as were his defensive teammates. The final 10 seconds can't be erased – that's when the Vikings scored on a 61-yard, walk-off touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs as time expired. But Rankins was a force, finishing with a sack, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss and five tackles. Linebacker Manti Te'o (10 tackles, a sack and a quarterback hit) also made his presence felt. But Rankins truly was a force on the interior as the Saints nearly pulled off the huge comeback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The only reason defensive end George Johnson wasn't credited with a blocked punt is because officially, it traveled a yard. But his fourth-quarter deflection (recovered by linebacker Gerald Hodges) set up Brees' 14-yard touchdown pass to Kamara, which gave their first lead of the game at 21-20 with 3:01 left. Honorary mention to punter Thomas Morstead, who likely made a touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter. The Vikings still constructed a touchdown drive after the stop, but Morstead deserves credit for doing what many specialists are loathe to do – putting his body on the line (he was injured on the play, but continued punting and averaged 48 yards on four punts.