Cameron Jordan

Stunner: Keenum-Diggs TD sends Vikings past Saints 29-24

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) As Case Keenum convened the Minnesota huddle with 10 seconds left, the situation staring down the Vikings was as simple as it was daunting.

With the go-ahead field goal by the New Orleans Saints that silenced this deafening stadium still fresh in the air, the Vikings were well beyond any moment of anxiety. All that was left for Keenum to do on that last snap was to throw the ball up like he used to do in his Texas backyards and hope for the best.

Keenum completed his last-ditch heave near the sideline Sunday on the game’s final play to Stefon Diggs, who slithered away from the Saints for a 61-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 29-24 victory and a spot in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia.

“At that point, I’m just a kid throwing a football to another big kid,” Keenum said with a smile, “and he just runs and scores.”

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

One more win, against the Eagles, and the Vikings will become the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their home turf. Instead of the usual win-or-go-home stakes, they’re in a win-and-go-home situation.

“It never ends that way,” Diggs said. “Usually, it’s reality. It’s life. So things go and you walk home and worry it about tomorrow.”

Instead, Drew Brees and the Saints were the ones trudging off the field in defeat.

“We’re still a bit shell-shocked after what happened there at the end,” said Brees, who steered the Saints in position for Wil Lutz‘s 43-yard kick with 25 seconds remaining that punctuating a forceful rally from a 17-point deficit that stood until 1:16 was left in the third quarter.

The field goal was set up by a fourth-and-10 completion by Brees to Willie Snead for 13 yards to the Minnesota 33 with 40 seconds left. Brees connected with Michael Thomas for two of his three touchdown passes in a span of 3:09 that spilled into the fourth quarter. The second score was set up at the Minnesota 40 by an interception by Marcus Williams, when an off-balance throw into traffic by Keenum served as his one costly moment of recklessness, a “bonehead play,” as he put it.

Keenum settled back in. He guided the Vikings to two more field goals by Kai Forbath, including a 53-yarder with 1:29 left that was his third of the game against his former team and gave them their lead back after a blocked punt by George Johnson had set up the Saints for a touchdown pass by Brees to Alvin Kamara.

Then came the play that put Keenum and Diggs in permanent rotation on the NFL’s all-time highlight reels.

“We knew there was still a possibility, still some hope,” Keenum said.

This wasn’t quite Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 playoffs, but these Vikings are on some kind of special path after turning to Keenum in the second game of the season after original starter Sam Bradford was sidelined by a knee injury.

The Vikings were out of timeouts and nearly out of options when Keenum dropped back from his 39 and threw high into a crowd. Diggs jumped in front of Williams, who rolled awkwardly underneath Diggs during an ill-fated attempt at making a low tackle.

Devastatingly for the Saints, nobody was behind him in the secondary, as Diggs made sure to note right before he made the break on his route during the play the Vikings, believe it or not, call “Seven Heaven.”

Diggs kept his balance as he landed, kept his feet in bounds and kept on running untouched into the end zone as the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium erupted with euphoria. Keenum raced around the field, looking for anyone to hug.

“I’m shocked. I don’t know what else to say. This is the first time ever I’m out of words,” Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said.

Keenum, the undrafted and undersized all-time leading passer in NCAA history who was making his first career playoff start and has long looked up to Brees, was having a hard time finding the words to describe the experience. He finished with 318 yards, going 25 for 40, with Diggs catching 137 yards on six catches.

“A heck of a game, wasn’t it?” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “And the good guys won.”

Diggs was still in full uniform when he took the podium for his postgame interview, the ball from the winning catch resting safely in front of him on the lectern.

“It’s plays like this that you dream about your whole life,” he said, “and it finally happens.”

PICKED OFF

Brees saw his 13th career postseason game end in a crushing final moment, his 25-for-40 performance for 294 yards tainted a bit by two interceptions before halftime. One came on a leaping grab by safety Andrew Sendejo , the other off a tip by Griffen that landed in Anthony Barr‘s arms at the Minnesota 10-yard line midway through the third quarter.

FIRST-HALF FORCE

The Vikings came roaring out of their first-round bye, forcing punts by the Saints on their first three possessions and moving 55 yards in eight plays for a touchdown run by Jerick McKinnon on their first drive. Aided by two pass interference calls on Ken Crawley for 54 yards, the Vikings reached the 1-yard line before settling for a short field goal on the next possession. They pushed the lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter when Latavius Murray plowed in from the 1-yard line.

“The Vikings had a phenomenal game plan,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.

The only other time the Saints went scoreless in the first half of a postseason game was five years ago. They fell behind 16-0 at Seattle in the divisional round and lost 23-15 to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

SENDEJO DOWN

The first touchdown to Thomas came one play after he leveled Sendejo with a jarring blindside block, sending Sendejo to the sideline for concussion evaluation and reigniting the crowd when the flag that was initially thrown was waved off.

UP NEXT

Saints: head home with a 1-5 record on the road in the playoffs under Payton, with a promising group of young players but some uncertainty around how much longer Brees, who will turn 39 on Monday, will stick around.

“I’m more toward the end of my career than I am at the beginning, I know that,” Brees said. “That’s all I’ll divulge.”

Vikings: move on to Philadelphia for the 10th championship game appearance in franchise history, the fifth in the last 30 years. They won the first four, losing in the Super Bowl each time.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Brees, defensive stand, help Saints survive Panthers, 31-26

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Drew Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints held off Carolina’s late comeback bid to seal a 31-26 victory in their NFC wild-card game on Sunday.

The Panthers had a first down on the Saints 26-yard line with 58 seconds left, but heavy pressure by All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan a couple plays later induced an intentional grounding penalty on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, making it third-and-25 on the Saints 34 and a required 10-second runoff left 22 seconds on the clock.

After an incompletion in the end zone on third down, Vonn Bell sacked Newton on a safety blitz, ensuring the Saints (12-5) swept all three meetings with Carolina (11-6) this season, in addition to winning their first playoff game in four seasons.

“We wanted it more,” Jordan said. “I mean they’ve been to their Super Bowl, let `em go to another one next year. We want our run.”

Brees’ touchdowns went for 80-yards to Ted Ginn and 9 yards to tight end Josh Hill. Fullback Zach Line and running back Alvin Kamara each ran for short touchdowns, the latter set up by Michael Thomas 46-yard reception.

Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards on a day when the Saints needed the passing game to compensate for a ground game that struggled to get going.

Helped by the presence of tight end Greg Olsen – who did not play in the teams’ previous two meetings – Newton marched Carolina into Saints territory more often than not. But the Panthers stalled four times from inside the New Orleans 25, settling for four field goal attempts on those drives, one of which kicker Graham Gano surprisingly missed.

Olsen had eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. Newton finished 24 of 40 passing for 349 yards and two touchdowns, the other a 56-yard scoring strike to Christian McCaffrey that pulled the Panthers within a touchdown with 4:09 left.

But Newton was also sacked four times, once each by Bell, Jordan, Jonathan Freeney, and David Onyemata. The sack by Onyemata came as Newton tried to spin away from Tyeler Davison and slammed his head into Onyemata’s chest. Newton was checked for a concussion, but missed only one play before returning to the game.

“We had to finish out the game and put it on our defense, put it on me, put it on our secondary, our D-line,” Jordan said. “I mean, everybody responded the way we were supposed to.”

Still, the Panthers were in striking distance for the win after a failed gamble by Saints coach Sean Payton, who elected to keep the offense on the field on fourth-and-short with two minutes remaining. He hoped to run out the clock on Carolina, which was out of timeouts. It backfired when Brees’ pass as he scrambled to his right was intercepted by Adams, giving Carolina the ball at its 31 with 1:51 to go.

“This win is special,” Jordan said. “They came back late in the fourth quarter, made this a game.”

INJURIES

Panthers: Newton missed one play – a failed third-and-long – while being evaluated for a concussion after Onyemata’s sack. Cornerback Daryl Worley briefly was placed in the concussion protocol but also cleared to return during the game.

Saints: Starting left guard Andrus Peat was carted off the field with a left shin injury. His replacement, Senio Kelemete, later needed help off the field for an undisclosed injury.

UP NEXT

Panthers: Begin their offseason.

Saints: Move on to play at Minnesota in the NFC Divisional playoffs.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Defense propels Saints past Falcons, into playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore corralled an unusual, momentum-turning interception off his back , New Orleans made two defensive stands from inside its own 2-yard line, and the Saints clinched their first playoff berth since 2013 with a 23-13 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons.

Ted Ginn caught a 54-yard pass for a touchdown, which came just a few plays after Lattimore’s interception and shortly before halftime. Mark Ingram used a sharp cutback to break loose for a 26-yard touchdown for New Orleans ( 11-4), which kept its tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South heading into the final week of the season.

While the loss eliminated the Falcons (9-6) from the NFC South race, Atlanta can clinch a wild-card berth by beating Carolina in the final regular season game on New Year’s Eve.

The Falcons entered the game with a second straight division crown in their grasp, but they needed to beat the Saints. They squandered chances spectacularly, much to the delight of a deafening Superdome crowd – and certainly to the chagrin of scattered fans wearing Falcons red. The Falcons were taunted on their way to the game by a plane towing a banner that read “28-3 Merry Xmas,” a reference to Atlanta’s Super Bowl collapse.

Atlanta trailed just 6-0 when Lattimore’s interception of Matt Ryan set the Saints up to double their lead.

But early in the third quarter, Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a passed that deflected off of Ginn’s hands and returned it 41 yards to the New Orleans 2. But Devonta Freeman fumbled on a hit by Tyeler Davison two plays later and linebacker Manti Teo recovered.

Early in the fourth quarter, Freeman was stopped short on fourth-and-goal from the 1, preserving a 20-3 Saints lead. One play earlier, Julio Jones caught a third-down pass with his feet in the end zone, but he was unable to pull the ball across the goal line after reaching back to make the catch and being quickly driven down. Atlanta challenged the spot, but the call on the field was upheld.

Drew Brees completed 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards. Ginn finished with 76 yards receiving and Michael Thomas – who’d been listed as questionable with a hamstring injury – caught four passes for 66 yards. Brees became only the third quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 70,000 career yards passing, joining Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.

Ryan was 22 of 36 for 288 yards. He was sacked five times, twice by Cameron Jordan.

Jones had seven catches for 149 yards, but the Falcons’ running game struggled.

Freeman was held to just 36 yards on 11 carries.

INJURY REPORT

Falcons: Tight end Levine Toilolo was sidelined by a knee injury in the second half.

Saints: Left tackle Terron Armstead left the game in the second half with a thigh injury.

UP NEXT

Falcons: Finish regular season at home against the Panthers.

Saints: Try to wrap up the division title at Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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