MINNEAPOLIS — Let's be clear about this from the get-go. This wasn't just unlikely or improbable or all the labels we will assign to it. We will leave it to Stefon Diggs because the moment is and forever will be his, and he deserves the right to put it in context.
"Things like this," Diggs said, "just don't happen."
No, they do not. They don't happen to franchises with the best of fortune because with 10 seconds remaining, with no timeouts, with leads of 17 points and six points and two points already frittered away and with 61 yards still to cover, well, this game was over. Add another chapter to the Minnesota Vikings' horror novel, place it back on the shelf and wrap yourself in another wool blanket to shield against the unrelenting, frigid air. It's always cold here in January. The Vikings — so beloved yet so prone to causing first heartburn, then heartbreak — somehow can make the chill cut directly to the bone.
But not Sunday night. Not for once. The franchise lore changed in those 10 seconds, changed over those 61 yards, changed because quarterback Case Keenum told his receivers he was going to give someone a chance and changed because Diggs took that opportunity, leaped and then ran. One of the most dramatic endings in the history of the NFL playoffs ended with that combination, with Keenum-to-Diggs, with no time on the clock, with the Vikings somehow beating the New Orleans Saints, 29-24, on a play and a situation that will never be forgotten.
"It's a turning point," Diggs boldly declared, speaking for a state and a region that spent much of the evening bracing for what the Vikings had inevitably caused in the past: pain. "People have a way of saying history repeats itself. It didn't repeat itself tonight."
So put away the misery from the past. Put away Drew Pearson from Roger Staubach out at old Metropolitan Stadium, before a building as majestic as this new U.S. Bank Stadium could even have been fathomed. That was the original Hail Mary, and it not only crushed the Vikings' hope in 1975 — "I think I was still swimming at the time," Diggs said — but it set the path for a franchise and its fan base that has endured for generations. There have been infamous field goal misses from Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh. There have been four losses in Super Bowls. And now there is this: a trip to the NFC championship game Sunday in Philadelphia on the back of a play that will be shown in these parts till the cows' children and the cows' children's children come home.
"That didn't look like a curse out there today," Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer said. "It looked like a Hail Mary."
So have your moment, Minnesota. This fundamental shift in a franchise's fortune keeps alive a dream the people here have shuddered even to allow themselves to think about: the possibility of playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Any of the 66,612 here Sunday could look around, listen to the headache-inducing chants of "Skol! Skol!" and try to imagine the NFL creating a neutral atmosphere for its signature event. It's difficult to envision. These people, they may have been burned by their Vikings time and again. But they are of good faith and hardy stock. They keep coming back.
"I've been excited a lot of times," said Bud Grant, the 90-year-old legend of a Vikings coach, in the hours before kickoff. "But we haven't won yet. We've got to win. There's a couple of steps along the way."
Digesting that first step, the victory over New Orleans, will take more time than we have between now and the kickoff in Philadelphia. But follow along.
Most fan bases, when their team takes a 17-0 halftime lead, might make plans for the following week. Check flights to Philadelphia? What are the hotel rates? Can I even get tickets?
This one, though, gnawed on its fingernails. And with good reason. Minnesota's opponent Sunday wasn't just its own past, which doesn't much affect the players in the locker room. Its opponent was Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
"That's a Hall of Fame quarterback," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said.
Indeed, much of the second half seemed built to help Brees enhance his legend rather than designed to allow the Vikings to turn around theirs. He started with an 80-yard drive that finished with a touchdown pass to Michael Thomas in the third quarter. After Keenum made his only mistake of the day — an ill-advised prayer that was easily picked off by Saints safety Marcus Williams (whom we will return to) — Brees again found Thomas early in the fourth quarter.
With 3:01 remaining, Brees found rookie running back Alvin Kamara for the touchdown that put New Orleans up 21-20. Even when Kai Forbath boomed a 53-yard field goal to give the Vikings the lead again, the prevailing thought had to be, "Man, they left Brees 89 seconds."
Brees didn't need them all — and it cost New Orleans in a way no one could foresee. The clutch play on what appeared to be the Saints' winning drive was a fourth-and-10 throw to wide receiver Willie Snead IV. From there, it was a formality to set up Wil Lutz's 43-yard field goal, the kick that gave the Saints a 24-23 lead, the kick that killed the Vikings.
Except 25 seconds remained. Twenty-five seconds and 75 yards. The Vikings responded by drawing a false start penalty.
And yet you know what's funny? The fans, they stayed. Maybe they're masochistic. But when that final drive — a drive that was sure to be futile — started, the fans stayed.
So Keenum found Diggs for 19 yards. But that was it. Two incompletions followed. And then, from his 39-yard line, with those 10 seconds left, Keenum made one last play-call: Seventh Heaven. The Vikings had practiced this play, by Diggs's estimation, "a million times."
Keenum sent his receivers out to the line with one final message: "I'm going to give someone a chance."
The someone was Diggs, the Vikings' most explosive playmaker. He found himself on the right sideline when the most astonishing series of events unfolded. Not only did Keenum's pass find his hands, not only did he time his leap perfectly, but Williams, the New Orleans safety, made an inexplicable judgment call. Instead of going for Diggs's body, instead of making sure of a tackle he had no alternative but to make, he dove for Diggs's legs. He missed.
"The safety," Minnesota defensive tackle Linval Joseph said, "he missed, whiffed — however you want to put it."
However you want to put it. That's just about right. Talk about it till the NFC championship game and beyond. Cast it against all the plays that had happened here in the past. But distill it to its most simplistic possible interpretation.
"Case threw a great ball," Diggs said. "The rest is history."
It's history, for sure. Maybe it will lead only to more pain in a week or three. But what happened Sunday night does not happen in the NFL and especially doesn't happen to the Minnesota Vikings. Maybe the history that was forged here actually changed a franchise's future by putting its past to rest.
Read more from The Post: