Curse no more: Case Keenum's desperation heave sends Vikings to NFC title game

MINNEAPOLIS -- Keenum to Diggs. Just like they drew it up.

No, really. There's a name for the miracle play that will go down as one of the greatest moments in Minnesota Vikings history. It's called "Seven Heaven."

All season long, Mike Zimmer preached situational football, and the play that resulted in a 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints to send the Vikings back to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 2009 was a result of something they'd practiced every week.

With time running out and their postseason window closing, Case Keenum exorcised all of the Vikings' playoff demons with one heroic, career-defining throw.

Trailing by 24-23 with 10 seconds left, Keenum dropped back and stepped up into the biggest play of his life, launching a last-second bomb that was caught down the sideline by Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown reception. The idea behind "Seven Heaven" was for Keenum to hit the furthest receiver down field, have that player get out of bounds and bring out the field goal unit to kick the game winner. Keenum said he wasn't thinking of a target yard line that would put Vikings kicker Kai Forbath in a good spot. He was just trying to pick up as much yardage as he could.

When Diggs caught Keenum's pass over Saints defender Marcus Williams and realized he had gone untouched, the receiver turned up field and never looked back.

"I was waiting for someone to come hit me," Diggs said. "Seeing that nobody touched me, I lost [my] footing a little bit. My hand never let me down. Rest is history."

Before the play, Diggs said Keenum told the huddle that he was going to give somebody a chance. That somebody turned out to be Diggs, who notched the first "walk-off" touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NFL postseason game.

"We’re fighting and clawing and scratching just trying to get the ball down the field," Keenum said. "Most of those guys had been running down the field two-minute mode so they were just trying to get their breath back. I wouldn’t say there’s nerves at that point. You’re doing everything you can to win the game."

The Vikings found themselves in a dogfight well before those final moments. A flawless first half where Minnesota built a 17-0 lead turned into back-to-back touchdowns for Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who was robbed of two catches in the first and second quarters when Drew Brees threw interceptions to Andrew Sendejo and Anthony Barr. Keenum threw an interception in between those scores in the third quarter but made up for it with big strikes to Jarius Wright and Adam Thielen.

Two minutes before Keenum and Diggs connected for their first career playoff touchdown, an eerie silence had fallen over U.S. Bank Stadium. The raucous air inside the home of Super Bowl LII had quickly vanished as the Vikings fell behind New Orleans.

Suddenly, the game was in the hands, er, on the foot of Forbath. These fans had seen this story play out before in wide-left infamy.

"If there was a curse, we probably would have lost today," Zimmer said.

It wouldn’t be the same this time. Keenum and the offense got as far as they could, putting Forbath in place for a 53-yard field goal, which he booted straight on to give the Vikings 23-21 lead.

But the sigh of relief that field goal provided was short-lived. Brees, who entered Sunday with three postseason game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime in his career, had 1:29 to work with.

That’s a lot of time. Too much time when Brees is orchestrating a drive.

The last time these teams met in the postseason in 2009, the Saints won on a field goal in overtime. Brees didn’t have to be perfect, like he was last week in the wild-card victory at home against the Carolina Panthers. This time, he had history on his side, which appeared to be working when Wil Lutz, who replaced Forbath as the Saints' kicker last season, drilled a 43-yarder with 25 seconds to go to put New Orleans back in front, 24-23.

Keenum came onto the field facing the biggest test of his career. A moment like this, no matter where he ends up in the future, would etch his name in Vikings lore forever.

"Being a kid growing up, that's what you do in the backyard," Keenum said. "There's 30 seconds to go, you're down by two, fourth quarter, playoffs. Drew Brees is the quarterback of the other team. That's what you dream about."

Leading a game-winning drive might have seemed unlikely at the time, but that improbability has been the storyline of Keenum’s season with the Vikings.

"Case is a cool customer," Zimmer said. "He was excited before the game. I think the way he handled himself today. He's got a big chip on his shoulder. Proving people wrong. I do love that about him. He's a lot like us. I know I get criticized for playing the underdog role, but that's just who we are."

One miracle throw. One monumental catch. One trip booked to the NFC Championship Game.