At about midway through the third quarter, the announcers started talking about how, if the New Orleans Saints could possibly come back from down seventeen points and beat the Minnesota Vikings, then the only playoff comeback of greater magnitude would be the one the New England Patriots pulled off in last year’s Super Bowl.
This sounded like an artful way of saying that the Saints were toast. The Vikings had one of the strongest defenses in the National Football League and they gave up yards and points like they were parting with their children. For nearly three quarters, they had shut the Saints out while scoring a couple of touchdown and a field goal. They were cruising, 17-0, in front of a nearly delirious home crowd.
The Saints, meanwhile, had dug themselves into a hole that looked to be just too deep. In the first half, they gave up over fifty yards in penalties for pass interference in one Viking scoring drive. And Drew Brees had thrown two interceptions. One of those balls was short by a good five yards. It was the sort of pass you would expect to see thrown by a journeyman quarterback like … well, like Case Keenum, the Vikings’ undrafted, itinerant quarterback who looked as poised as Brees — a sure Hall of Famer — was shaky.
Then Brees and the Saints gathered it up. Brees threw a touchdown pass with just over a minute left in the third quarter. Brees might be 39 but it’s 39 and holding. He was playing ten years younger.
After the Saints’ touchdown, Case Keenum, who had been playing much better than his résumé, threw an interception. Brees, who was now playing exactly like his résumé, threw another touchdown pass. 17-14.
Then, a minute and a half later, the Vikings extended their lead, with a 53-yard field goal.
With the score 20-14 and just over five minutes left in the game, the Saints blocked a Vikings punt. It now seemed inevitable that they would take the lead and win the game on the arm of Drew Brees. The gods have their agenda.
The drive took four plays. It covered 40 yards in two minutes and twenty seconds. The Saints had the lead for the first time in the game. It was 21-20, with three minutes left.
Nine plays and one 53-yard field goal later, it was 23-21 with just over a minute and a half left to play. Case Keenum and the Vikings weren’t folding.
Brees and the Saints started at their own 25 after the kickoff. They made it to the Vikings’ 46 and stalled. Three Brees incompletions made it 4th and 10 with 45 seconds left. Too far for even a desperation field goal.
So Brees did the necessary. His 13-yard completion to Willie Sneed put the Saints on the Vikings’ 30-yard line. Close enough.
But the Saints moved a little closer as Brees kept on throwing. He’s Drew Brees, so of course he kept throwing. An interception, at this point, would have required a complete realignment of the planets.
With 25 seconds left in the game, the Saints kicker put it through the uprights from slightly more than 40 yards. The second greatest comeback in playoff history was, one thought, now in the books. Great game. Helluva comeback. Nice try Vikings and, especially you, Case Keenum. You played well. But the other quarterback was Drew Brees.
There was time, still, on the clock. Twenty-five seconds. After the obligatory kickoff, the Vikings started 75 yards away from the Saints’ end zone and quickly added another five yards with a penalty. Keenum completed a pass that cut it down to a mere 60 yards. He then threw incomplete.
And did it again.
Third and ten, 14 seconds left. Then days and days, stretching into months, before the next game. Time when Keenum could brood on the interception that handed the ball to Drew Brees, who then turned it all around.
Keenum found his receiver who caught the pass and then more or less vaulted over a tackle and took it all… the… way.
Touchdown. Final score, 29-24.
Delirium followed. One suspects that NFL owners and TV executives gave thanks to whatever deity they pray to. This was the game their game had been needing. The regular season had been filled with woe. There had been the player protests that antagonized an already restless fan base. Too many injuries. Too many bad calls. Too many penalties. Too many ads. Too much sloppy play.
The playoffs, so far, hadn’t done much to redeem things. One day earlier, the Philadelphia Eagles had outlasted the Atlanta Falcons in a game that seemed out of synch. Then the Patriots cruised past an outclassed Tennessee team. In the first Sunday game, the Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a wild game but not especially well played. Especially not by Pittsburgh and was never as close as the final score of 45-42.
This left the Saints and Vikings and they put on a show.
So now Case Keenum and the Vikings will play the Eagles in Philadelphia next week.
If Keenum and the Vikings beat the Eagles, they will go on to the Super Bowl against either the Jacksonville Jaguars or the New England Patriots. Whose quarterback is Tom Brady. He has won five Super Bowls.
Still, after today…