The New Orleans Saints were done in by an improbable, Lucky, miraculous, 61-yd. touchdown pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs as time expired to lose their NFC divisional showdown with the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 29-24. The score happened with just 10 seconds on the clock, as Minnesota was trying desperately to move into field goal position with no timeouts remaining and trailing, 24-23. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum completed a pass to Diggs down the right sideline to around the Saints 34-yd. line at about the five second mark, where time would have run out if he were tackled in bounds. If Diggs were to somehow have gotten out of bounds, it would have set up a 50-yd. game winning field goal attempt by former New Orleans kicker Kai Forbath. What happened next, of course, is a horror clipshow that will haunt the memories of Saints fans forever. Rookie safety Marcus Williams, who had an earlier interception and overall played a very good game, missed Diggs on a tackle attempt that likely would have kept him in-bounds, allowing the Minnesota receiver to sprint into the end zone, and sending the Vikings to the NFC Championship against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Lost in the infamy of one of the most horrible losses in franchise history was the fact that New Orleans had fought their way back from a 17-0 halftime deficit, on the road, and against arguably the best defense in the NFL. While we normally reserve our "game balls" to top performances after a New Orleans victory, this group of warriors most certainly deserve some recognition, given the nature of such a hard-fought loss.
GAME BALL #1 — Drew Brees
Brees ended the first quarter against Minnesota with one completion in six attempts, for a paltry 3 yards and 1 interception. He ended the first half with a total of 2 interceptions, 44% completion percentage, getting sacked twice, and often coming up short or wide on his throws. Brees, who celebrated his 39th birthday on Monday, rebounded in the second half in a big way, completing 17-22 passes (77%) for 177 yards, 3 touchdowns, and leading his team to the brink of victory. You can bet the national pundits will be speculating about Brees' departure from New Orleans, given his free agency situation. Don't believe a word of it. This is still Drew Brees' team, and he has proven he still has championship calibur football left to lead this young group of Saints players.
GAME BALL #2 —Cam Jordan
Jordan was so often, and so blatantly held on Sunday that criminal mugging charges should have been filed against the Minnesota offensive line. He nevertheless continued to be the disruptive force he has all season. Jordan finished with just one official tackle, but an incredible 8 quarterback pressures, leading to an 88.3 grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to lead all edge rushers in the divisional playoff round. Jordan has finally started to receive his much-deserved recognition as a star defender, and most exciting for Saints fans is that he is in the prime of his career.
GAME BALL #3 — Sheldon Rankins
Rankins came into his own over the last 3⁄4 of the season, and took his game to another level in the playoffs. He had 1 of the team's two sacks of Keenum on Sunday, and produced a number of other quarterback pressures. He helped hold Minnesota leading rusher Latavius Murray to just 2.6 yards per carry, and teamed with Cam Jordan on twists and stunts throughout the playoffs, making the two a nearly unblockable duo.
GAME BALL #4 — Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas made the playoffs his own personal playground in the first postseason appearances of his young career. Thomas followed up his 8 catch, 131-yd. performance against Carolina with 7 receptions for 85 yards and 2 touchdowns against a Minnesota secondary considered by many to be the best in the NFL. Michael Thomas has served notice to the rest of the league that he is a force to be reckoned with, and should be considered one of the NFL's elite receivers entering the 2018 season.
A number of other Saints players had good performances against a very good Minnesota team. Rookie star Alvin Kamara had a team leading 105 yards from scrimmage, including 62 receiving yards and a terrific 4th quarter touchdown catch, on a day when backfield mate Mark Ingram was limited to just 28 yards. Fellow rookie Ryan Ramczyk allowed zero quarterback pressures on 44 pass attempts from his right tackle position against the very talented Viking edge rushers.
The rookie everyone will most remember from this game, of course, will be Marcus Williams. One must remember this: it was Williams' acrobatic 3rd quarter interception that set up the Saints second touchdown to cut Minnesota's lead to 3 points. On the play he exhibited some of the attributes that this New Orleans secondary has been missing for years; good play recognition, good ball skills, and the athleticism to make a special play. This young New Orleans team came of age quickly during the 2017 season, and served notice to the league that they now look to be in a position of prolonged success. They showed the fight, character, and talent of true champions. This was a near-miss, more than a loss, and the type that will only increase the resolve and focus of what can be a downright scary New Orleans Saints team with only the future in front of them.