It’s all kind of a blur isn’t it? One minute the New Orleans Saints are down 17-0, overmatched and outclassed, then in a flash they are up 24-23 with 10 seconds left and seemingly about to pull off the second greatest win in franchise history. Then heartache the likes of which all Saints heartaches will now be measured descended upon us. I’ll be honest; it felt like an out of body experience. A 61-yard touchdown strike by Minnesota to win the game never even crossed my consciousness as a possible outcome.
As the numbness washed over me I thought, “Maybe it would have been better if the Saints would’ve just lost 27-7 like it looked at halftime. Then I thought “Nah, the last 20 minutes of that football game was too amazing an experience to never have had,” even if the ending will haunt my sports dreams forever. I had to make an emergency call to my personal therapist to help me cope. Dr. Jack Daniels was at the ready to ease my pain.
Where should we start with this game? Let’s hold off on the ending and start with when things went from resignation to ‘OMG the Saints are actually in this thing!!’
For more than three quarters the Saints looked completely outclassed and I wasn’t that upset. Sure it was frustrating watching the offense sputter, Drew Brees look as bad as he had all season, and knowing the season was nearing its conclusion but the Saints needed to play their best game of the season and get some breaks to win in Minnesota. Neither of those things was happening in the slightest. The Vikings were the better team and the bad calls from the officials made it harder to watch but the 2017 Saints looked every bit like a team that emptied the tank against Carolina and didn’t have much more to give.
If it ended with the Saints looking hopeless and outclassed in Minnesota, the 2017 season would have still been a success. The fact they fought back and damn near did the impossible made it even more special and emotionally brutal.
The Saints had found their footing late in the first half on offense but couldn’t crack the scoreboard. When Drew Brees capped a 12 play, 80 yard drive with a touchdown pass to Michael Thomas, the Saints at least showed they wouldn’t let the Vikings coast home with an easy win. When Marcus Williams turned a horrible decision by Case Keenum into an interception it was game on. You could feel U.S Bank Stadium become as tight as a drum and every Viking fan see all their playoff failures and horrible memories come to life. As soon as Michael Thomas scored again in make it 17-14 the entire building was shook.
From playing out the string to playing for a shot to go to Philadelphia and win another NFC Championship, the Saints had flipped Sunday afternoon on its head and it was game on. Even after the Vikings kicked a field goal to pull ahead 20-14, the Saints had 10 minutes left and amazingly looked like the better team.
Sean Payton then did what he’s been doing as Saints coach in every big pressure filled moment; he got incredibly aggressive and reached into his bag of tricks when everyone least expected it. The third and one wide receiver pass by Willie Snead was so perfectly designed and done at the EXACT perfect moment, the thought of Snead missing a streaking Alvin Kamara for a walk-in touchdown makes me weep even now. It’d have been an iconic play in Saints history. It was like watching someone paint the Mona Lisa and then have a guest dump ketchup on it. You might think running a trick play on third and one yard to go was a bad idea. You’d be wrong. It was the perfect moment, as Minnesota was completely fooled. Who would be crazy enough to run a play where a receiver throws a pass late in the biggest game of the year? Sean Payton. Never ever forget in the biggest moments Sean Payton is gonna go down swinging.
The Saints punted, but the defense stiffened, and when George Johnson blocked a punt the Saints were right back on a path to stealing a road playoff game. When Drew Brees hit a streaking Kamara the Saints were in the lead. Can we take a moment to acknowledge how magnificent Kamara was? He had 15 touches for 105 yards and the go ahead score. I just want him healthy for a career that can be magical. He’s a joy.
A Saints offense that couldn’t get out of it’s own way for most of the first half suddenly was on fire. Brees followed probably his worst half of 2017 with maybe his best. Brees threw for 177 yards and three scores in the second half and looked every bit as special as he did against Carolina. The touchdown to Kamara was so perfect if it was an entrée I’d give it a chef’s kiss. By the way, watching the Saints fight back from down 17-0 to up 21-20 on the road in a playoff game was as fantastic a Saints fan experience as I’ve ever had.
Even after Kai Forbath hit a 53-yard field goal, the Saints had more than a minute and a half to go win the game. On the road in the NFL playoffs with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback having enough time to steal a win is pretty much all you can want.
When Drew Brees hit Willie Snead to convert a fourth down I thought it was destiny and the Saints were winning. Snead after a year filled with off field issues in the summer, injuries, and going from 72 catches in 2016 and Drew Brees’ third down security blanket to eight catches in 2017 had finally delivered. The guy Saints fan had been waiting to regain his form to help the Saints regain their efficiency on third down made the biggest catch of the season. The grin on my face was so big I could barely contain myself. Willie was back just in time and he had helped them to the NFC Championship game. It was too perfect.
Wil Lutz was perfect from 43 yards and the Saints were going to Philly. Except they weren’t.
The final touchdown throw from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs was really an out of body experience for me. The last time I felt that during a Saints game was during the onside kick in the Super Bowl, except this time instead of joy it was football death. My eyes just couldn’t process it. “This can’t be happening. How could the Saints let him get behind them?” I might have blacked out.
Marcus Williams screwed up, but I just can’t be that mad at him. His interception kick started the rally and he’s going to be a great safety. Great. The thing is, I believe even if Williams doesn’t whiff on the tackle, Diggs gets out of bounds and the Vikings are kicking a 47-yard field goal. Should he have played it better? Of course, but life, like sports, is just cruel sometimes.
This loss hurts so much because while the Saints future seems bright, the future in football can often not be what it appears. Drew Brees will be 39 and opportunities like these aren’t promised to anyone. Your mileage may vary but this is the most painful Saints loss I’ve ever experienced. This made the 2011 playoff loss in San Francisco feel like a preseason game. I never once thought the Saints had that game won. On Sunday I thought the Saints were about to play in their third NFC Championship.
The cruelest ending to the most magical of seasons.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.