Saints' incredible bounce-back season ends with stunning heartbreak

MINNEAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints came back from the dead in Minnesota -- twice, really -- if you count the way they rallied from their lousy Week 1 loss to the Vikings and their lousy first half in Sunday’s divisional playoff game.

But all it got them was an even more painful finish to the 2017 season than anyone could have imagined.

The Saints’ season ended with a stunning, staggering 61-yard touchdown pass from Minnesota’s Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs as time expired for a 29-24 Vikings victory that sent Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday in Philadelphia.

"I think we're all a bit shell-shocked," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who compared the loss to New Orleans' gut-wrenching divisional-round loss at San Francisco six years earlier but acknowledged that he had never been part of a finish quite this jarring.

"Not like that. Not like that," Brees said. "That's probably the craziest thing I've ever been a part of -- and unfortunately, on the wrong side of it."

The loss was even harder on rookie Saints safety Marcus Williams -- a hero for his leaping interception at the end of the third quarter who became the victim of Diggs' walk-off touchdown when he missed the open-field tackle. Williams lowered his shoulder to try to hit Diggs on his way down from the catch around the Saints’ 35-yard line, but the safety completely whiffed -- and actually ran into Saints cornerback Ken Crawley. Diggs ran free into the end zone and the roof nearly exploded off the top of U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Saints were hoping to return for a third time three weeks from now for Super Bowl LII.

“Man, it was just my play to make,” Williams said with bloodshot eyes but his chin up as he vowed to "take it upon myself to do all that I can to never let that happen again."

Williams' teammates and Saints coach Sean Payton insisted, however, that Williams wasn't the only one to blame on that play -- or throughout a game in which everything that could go wrong for the Saints did in the first half.

"It's not on one player," Payton said. "Obviously, he'd like to have that back, but he's been a good player for us all year."

Ultimately, the Saints (11-5 in the regular season, 1-1 in the playoffs) couldn’t give themselves enough breathing room to overcome the 17-0 deficit they created with that awful first half, which included two interceptions by Brees, a handful of defensive breakdowns and penalties and some special-teams miscues. It was the first time they had been shut out in the first half since 2014.

But everything they did wrong in the first half, they brilliantly reversed in the second half.

Brees, who turns 39 on Monday, was on fire in the second half, with 177 yards and three touchdown passes to his young go-to guys Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Williams came up with the interception. Veteran journeyman defensive end George Johnson -- who joined the team just last month -- blocked a punt. Brees completed a fourth-and-10 pass to embattled receiver Willie Snead to keep the game alive. And second-year kicker Wil Lutz nailed a 43-yard field goal that sure felt like a game winner with 25 seconds left.

"This would have been one for the ages if we were able to pull it off," said Brees, who said he expects to return next season despite being a free agent and confidently suggested that the Saints are entering "a window of time here where we can really make a run at it."

At some point, the Saints will chalk this up to a very good season, one that ended a three-year playoff drought and proved they are a young team on the rise, led by two stellar draft classes that produced guys such as Thomas, Kamara and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

But the pain of missed opportunities like this will never go away.

"This will take a while to get over," Payton said. "In our game, if you play it long enough, you have some wins like that and some losses. The losses are tougher to get over. Hopefully, when your career is done, you're a part of more of the wins than you are the losses."

Payton had a few big gambles that didn't pay off in the fourth quarter. He struck out on two replay challenges, explaining that the Saints' monitor was down in the coaching booth and he had to go with his gut, though he said that fortunately the loss of the timeouts didn't wind up hurting the Saints. He also tried a trick play on third-and-1 that called for Snead to throw a deep pass to Kamara. But Snead (a great high school QB who nailed a similar throw last year) missed his target on a day when the Saints couldn't seem to catch many breaks (including with the officiating).

Payton insisted that the team wouldn't just chalk the game up to one that wasn't "going your way."

"We never think that way, ever," said Payton, who was proud of the way his team had fought back in the second half, just as it had fought back from its 0-2 start to the season.

"We did some special things this year for a team that was very young and very new," Brees said. "And I think we exceeded a lot of expectations maybe of the [media] in this room. I think for us as we went along, we felt like we were really building something.

"This one will sting. But I think as you look back at the things we accomplished and some of the memories that were made and the relationships that were built and the way that this team came together, it really leaves me excited for the future for Saints football."