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7 Heaven: Vikings advance to NFC title game after wild win with no time left

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) runs for the end zone and scores the winning touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 14, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Hail Mary, Stefon Diggs is full of grace.

The Minnesota Vikings receiver leaped sky high to snare a pass from quarterback Case Keenum, fell to a three point stance near the sidelines and glided 61 yards as time expired to give the NFC’s No. 2 seed a divisional round win over New Orleans on Sunday, Jan. 14, 29-24.

The play, aptly named 7 Heaven, started with Diggs lined up to the right with tight end Kyle Rudolph and receiver Jarius Wright. Diggs ran a corner route 25 yards downfield and elevated over diving Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams to make the catch. Diggs faltered on his way down, but stayed inbounds as the 66,612 Minnesota faithful at U.S. Bank Stadium exalted their team’s good fortune.

“It was kind of surreal,” said Vikings safety Harrison Smith. “It was almost like, ‘Is there a flag? Is there a something?’”

The late-game heroics capped off a rollercoaster second half in which the Vikings saw a 17-0 halftime lead vanish into thin air as quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense came alive.

Mike Zimmer’s defense had intercepted Brees twice and bottled up the vaunted running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, but New Orleans moved the ball with ease after the half.

“We knew this was going to be a dogfight,” Zimmer said. “You don’t play a guy like (Brees), and the things they do offensively with the weapons they have, without getting into a fight. We knew it wasn’t going to be a 17-0 game.”

Brees sandwiched two touchdown passes to Michael Thomas around a Keenum interception to get his team back in the game. Brees finished with 294 yards passing while completing 25 of his 40 attempts. Kamara had 105 yards from scrimmage while Thomas added 85 yards receiving on seven catches.

Keenum finished with 25 completions on 40 attempts for 318 yards. Diggs (137 yards) and Thielen (74) led Minnesota with six catches apiece.

“It was an exciting game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We fought back in the second half, kind of climbed back in it… we got ourselves in a hole in the first half, but in the end, we came up short.”

A Wil Lutz field goal brought New Orleans out of the hole with a 24-23 lead with 25 seconds left in the game.

But 29-year-old journeyman Keenum had the same message in the huddle he’s had all season long.

“His words were ‘I’m going to give somebody a chance,’” Diggs said. “We were trying to take chunks (of yardage) and get downfield… Adam (Thielen, Vikings receiver) said before the series ‘I don’t care what’s called, make it work.’”

And work it did, securing Minnesota its first trip to the NFC Championship since the ill-fated 2009 game in New Orleans.

Did this help exorcise some of the demons of past Vikings playoff losses?

“That didn’t look like a curse out there to me,” Zimmer said. “That looked like a Hail Mary.”

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.