Boos broke the silence first, followed by a referee’s announcement that Rudolph’s overtime touchdown would stand. Trash floated from the upper deck, in the direction of the officials running into the tunnel, and the public address announcer pleaded, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not throw anything on the field.” It served as the soundtrack to a fresh layer of heartache atop the scars of the past two January early endings.
The third-seeded New Orleans Saints’ 26-20 overtime loss to the sixth-seeded Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the NFL playoffs lacked (most of) the drama and (most of) the controversy from their wrenching recent exits. The sting of another missed Super Bowl will linger just the same. The Saints may cringe at an uncalled, possible pass interference ending to their season in the first round a year after an egregious missed pass interference cost them the NFC championship. But they will have to live with a loss they deserved while the Vikings prepare to visit the San Francisco 49ers.
“You invest so much, and we have invested so much into it,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “You understand that these opportunities are so few.”
Brees never touched the ball in overtime, a testament to the brilliance of maligned Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins entered with a well-earned reputation for crumbling in the spotlight, a 6-30 career record against winning teams and no playoff victories. And then he walked into the Superdome and vastly outplayed Brees, who committed two momentous turnovers. Cousins played spotless all game and dominated overtime, completing 4 of 5 passes for 74 yards while converting two third downs, including his game-winning, four-yard strike to Rudolph.
Afterward, teammates presented Cousins with a game ball. In giving a speech, he shouted, “You like that!” which he had made his personal motto in Washington.
“I’ve been waiting for him to say that,” tackle Brian O’Neill said.
“It’s fun to be able to win, to feel like I’m moving forward,” Cousins said. “When you climb a mountain, you sit there on the top and you look around, you realize there are only more mountains to climb. Being a fourth-round pick, working your way up in the league, now you win a playoff game. Guess what? You look around and you realize there are more mountains to climb. You want to win another playoff game. You want to get to the Super Bowl.”
The Vikings moved on after a controversial ending; what other ending could there be in New Orleans? Rudolph and cornerback P.J. Williams jostled for position as Cousins tossed a fade pass. Rudolph extended his arm. On Twitter, former official Terry McAuley opined that the play should have been flagged for offensive pass interference.
“He pushed off,” Saints safety Vonn Bell said. “You can’t do anything about it.”
“There is contact by both players, but none of that contact rises to the level of a foul,” NFL head of officiating Al Riveron told a pool reporter. “This is consistent with what we’ve done all year long — we left the ruling on the field.”
Saints Coach Sean Payton said the Vikings deserved to win, and the entire afternoon backed that assertion. Minnesota built a 20-10 after the third quarter, leaning on newly healthy star running back Dalvin Cook, who pierced the edges of New Orleans’s defense on tosses and stretch plays, running for 94 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings’ pass rush, led by Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, assaulted Brees all day while rarely needing to blitz, sacking him three times and forcing numerous throwaways.
Brees played one of his worst games in recent years. He threw an interception to Anthony Harris into double coverage. At the end of the first half, when not targeting superstar wideout Michael Thomas, Brees had completed 4 of 8 passes for 11 yards. With less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Saints down 20-17, two rushes from wildcat quarterback Taysom Hill put the Saints in field goal position with a chance to take the lead. Brees dropped back and Hunter blasted him from behind, jarring the ball loose, and the Vikings recovered.
The Saints erred in crucial moments around Brees, too. They missed a chance at a closer field goal — which Wil Lutz ultimately missed — or touchdown at the end of the first half because of the 10-second runoff after lining up incorrectly on a clock-killing spike. Hill successfully converted a fake punt in the fourth, only for it to be called back on a false start.
Largely because of Hill, who threw a 50-yard pass, had a 20-yard touchdown catch, rushed for 50 yards and threw the key block on a touchdown run, the Saints still had life. Brees, a master at the two-minute drill even on a bad day, completed all five of his passes against Minnesota’s curiously soft coverage. Lutz’s 49-yarder sent the game to overtime.
When the Vikings won the coin toss, they received an opportunity they knew they could not squander. “We didn’t want Drew to have the ball in overtime,” Rudolph said. “It’s scary when a Hall of Famer is taking the ball with a chance to win the game.”
On the third play of the drive, Cousins hit Stefon Diggs on a third-and-one slant, a play teammates pointed to as the most crucial — and most impressive throw — of the day. It set up Cousins’s 43-yard bomb, two plays later, to Adam Thielen on a pass down the right sideline that gave the Vikings the ball at the 2.
Cook slammed into the line for one yard. A toss lost three yards. Rudolph lined up split out wide left, with Williams across from him. The Vikings expected the Saints might call a “zero” blitz, sending everybody at Cousins. At the snap, if the Saints brought the house, Cousins knew Rudolph would be one-on-one, and that’s where he would throw.
The Saints sent the zero blitz. Cousins took three steps back and lofted the ball to the back of the end zone. Rudolph played basketball all his life — Notre Dame offered him a basketball scholarship before it gave him a football scholarship. As the ball spiraled toward him, he relied on those instincts.
“Kirk gave me a chance,” Rudolph said. “Go up and get the rebound.”
Rudolph came down with it, and despite the angry New Orleanians, nothing could change the result. Vikings players and coaches reminded one another about the last time they won a thrilling playoff game against the Saints, when they went on to Philadelphia and lost in a rout. There are no lessons for the Saints, who will rue a loss they never saw coming.
Read our live in-game updates below.
January 5, 2020 at 4:11 PM EST
Overtime in New Orleans
If the Saints’ season ends today, it will be in heartbreak once again. The game is headed to overtime after Drew Brees carved up a curiously soft Minnesota defense, completing five consecutive short passes to drive the Saints into field goal territory. The Saints may have threatened to score a touchdown if not for a clock-killing snafu, when an illegal shift caused a 10-second runoff. Wil Lutz drilled a 49-yard field goal with a low laserbeam of a kick, tying the score and sending the Saints back to where their season ended — at home, in overtime. (Saints 20, Vikings 20, start of overtime)
January 5, 2020 at 4:01 PM EST
The Saints are down to their last stand
Drew Brees, playing below his standard all day, will get the ball back with 1:55 after an insane near miss. Dalvin Cook fumbled as the Vikings were trying to run the clock out, and Vonn Bell scooped it and ran for a touchdown, only to have it reviewed and, without controversy, have it be ruled that Cook was down. (Vikings 20, Saints 17, 1:55 left in fourth)
January 5, 2020 at 3:52 PM EST
Drew Brees loses a crucial fumble
The Saints are in major trouble. Just when Taysom Hill came to the rescue again, picking up two first downs with punishing runs as an effective single-wing quarterback, the Saints turned the ball over. Danielle Hunter sacked Drew Brees and forced the ball loose, and the Vikings recovered to take over with the lead and less than five minutes remaining. (Vikings 20, Saints 17, 3:27 left in fourth quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 3:36 PM EST
Taysom Hill scores, Saints cut into lead
Taysom Hill may save the Saints yet. Having thrown a pass for 50 yards in the first half, he caught a 20-yard touchdown from Drew Brees to cut a two-score deficit to just three points. The pressure is back on Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has frequently shrunk from the moment. (Vikings 20, Saints 17, 10:31 left in the fourth)
January 5, 2020 at 3:25 PM EST
Saints in need of rally as fourth quarter begins
After three quarters, the Saints need a huge rally from a sputtering offense. The Vikings lead, 20-10. The Saints nearly found a spark. After another three-and-out, they lined up to punt and snapped to Taysom Hill, lined up as a personal protector, on a fake punt, and he surged for enough yards to gain the first down — except the Saints were flagged for a false start penalty. (Vikings 20, Saints 10 at start of fourth quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 3:12 PM EST
Minnesota adds to lead, and an upset is brewing
The Vikings have complete control and a real chance to spring a major first-round upset. While the Saints’ offense continues to bog down, the Vikings have taken a two-score lead late in the third quarter.
The Vikings scored the first touchdown of the half on a defining play by Kirk Cousins. While taking a massive hit on third and long, Kirk Cousins found Adam Thielen for 34 yards down the right sideline to put the Vikings in the red zone. Cousins fired a dart on the run to Stefon Diggs to put Minnesota on the doorstep, and Dalvin Cook plunged in from the 1-yard line.
The Saints’ offense remains stuck. Their line still can’t handle Minnesota’s pass rush, and the Saints can’t get Alvin Kamara going. A three-and-out on their second possession of the half ended with Anthony Barr collapsing the pocket and Everson Griffen recording a sack of Brees. (Vikings 20, Saints 10, 3:23 left in the third quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 2:39 PM EST
Vikings lead Saints at halftime, 13-10
The Vikings entered the break with a 13-10 after a loopy first half stuffed with disorienting occurrences. Drew Brees has 13 more passing yards than Taysom Hill? Kirk Cousins flawlessly executed a two-minute drive before halftime and leads a playoff game at the Superdome? The Saints are being outgained by nearly 70 yards? Yes, yes and yes, and that’s without mentioning Will Lutz missing a clutch kick at the buzzer.
Cousins capitalized on Harris’s interception, leading a drive that pivoted on his third-and-8 strike to Adam Thielen. Dalvin Cook finished the drive with a five-yard burst on second down — he has 84 yards on 16 carries at the half — with just 25 seconds left.
The Saints could have struck back. Deonte Harris returned the kick to midfield, and Brees put the Saints in field goal range with a dart over the middle to Michael Thomas. Lutz, one of the NFL’s best kickers, pushed his try right. The Saints need to figure some things out to avoid an upset — when not throwing to Michael Thomas, Brees is 4 for 8 for 11 yards. (Vikings 13, Saints 10, halftime)
January 5, 2020 at 2:21 PM EST
Drew Brees throws an interception
Drew Brees is picking up where he left off in the second half of the NFC Championship. He’s 7 for 11 for only 43 yards, and he threw an interception on one of his rare deep balls, his post pass to Ted Ginn hanging up long enough for Minnesota safety Anthony Harris to make a leaping interception. At the two-minute warning, the Vikings are driving just over midfield. (Saints 10, Vikings 6, 1:58 left in second quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 2:16 PM EST
Dalvin Cook is dynamic, but Vikings settle for field goal
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is a superstar, and in his first career playoff game he’s putting that on display. Cook gained 50 yards on Minnesota’s 13-play field goal drive, which stopped short when Cook took a toss and couldn’t get around the edge before the Saints pushed him out. Cook was not on field for first two snaps after the Vikings had a first-and-goal from inside the 5, which FOX reported on its broadcast was a result of a cracked shield on Cook’s helmet. Boy, when Cook sees a hole, he is lightning. (Saints 10, Vikings 6, 2:03 left in second quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 2:00 PM EST
Taysom Hill helps Saints take lead
Punchless against Minnesota’s pass rush, the Saints turned to their favorite gadget to score the game’s first touchdown. Sean Payton inserted Taysom Hill at quarterback. On consecutive plays, Hill kept a read-option for 11 yards and threw a bomb to speedy Deonte Harris, who snuck behind Vikings defensive backs keying on Hill’s potential run. The pass gained 52 yards and set up Alvin Kamara’s two-yard touchdown run on a pitch. (Saints 10, Vikings 3, 9:18 left in the second quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 1:42 PM EST
Through one quarter, Minnesota looks like the better team
The first quarter ended with the Vikings preparing to punt after another promising drive stalled. They started with runs — all outside — of 11 and seven yards and then got a big gain on another toss called back on a holding penalty. The Vikings have really found something running at the edges of the Saints’ defense. It’ll be interesting to see how the Saints adjust, and what if anything that opens for the Vikings.
The Vikings have been the better team so far, especially along the lines, but they’ve shot themselves in the foot, so it’s still tied. (Saints 3, Vikings 3, end of first quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 1:32 PM EST
Vikings tie things up
The Vikings responded with a drive that suggested the heavy underdogs could make this a game. Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison combined for 33 yards rushing as the Vikings used toss plays to attack the edge New Orleans’s defense. The drive stalled when the Vikings called a reverse pass on first down, which in retrospect looked too cute by half and shredded the momentum of a promising drive. Dan Bailey’s 43-yarder tied the score at 3. (Saints 3, Vikings 3, 3:58 left in the first quarter.)
January 5, 2020 at 1:21 PM EST
Vikings sack holds New Orleans to a field goal
The Saints scored first, but they had to settle for a field goal after forcing a turnover on Minnesota’s first drive. New Orleans drove to the Minnesota 4-yard line, but Drew Brees found nobody open on third down and was sacked by Everson Griffen. Will Lutz polished off the eight-play, 26-yard drive, which chewed up 4:18 as the Saints relied on Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray and short passes. (Saints 3, Vikings 0, 9:52 left in the first quarter)
January 5, 2020 at 1:14 PM EST
Saints force early turnover
In a cacophonous Superdome, the Saints stuck the first blow and the officials became involved to a degree that made every man, woman and child in New Orleans momentarily uncomfortable. As the Vikings advanced close to midfield on their opening drive, Janoris Jenkins punched the ball out of wide receiver Adam Thielen’s hands, and safety Vonn Bell pounced on it right in front of Coach Sean Payton.
The play was reviewed, and as referee Carl Cheffers stood on the field, the crowd, still stinging from the end of last year’s NFC Championship, hurled boos. But they cheered when he announced the play would stand.
The crowd filled in close to kickoff and, by the standards of the Superdome in January, sounded subdued for much of pregame. Just before the Saints kicked off, that changed. The crowd unleashed a deafening “Who Dat?” chant, and once the Vikings started their opening drive, the decibel level reached 119, per the stadium videoboard. (Saints 0, Vikings 0, 11:56 in first quarter)