Miracle redux: Saints downplay revenge, Vikes ready for best
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings screamed at Stefon Diggs to step out of bounds once he secured the leaping catch at the sideline , seeking to stop the clock for a long field goal try just after the New Orleans Saints had taken a late lead in their NFC divisional-round playoff game last season .
Diggs spun around instead, pressed his hand on the turf to keep his balance and sprinted the remaining 34 yards for the game-ending 61-yard touchdown pass that became known as the Minneapolis Miracle.
That throw-catch-run will forever be one of the most memorable plays in NFL history.
With the Saints set to visit the Vikings on Sunday night in a prime-time reprise of their instant classic, the coaches and players on both sides were trying their best to forget it — as inevitable as the replays have been throughout the week.
"We'll just have to deal with watching that last play again another 15 times, another 20 times, but that's part of it," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who sounded more disturbed by a failure by his offense to convert a third-and-1 on the previous drive that would have further limited the time the Vikings had to rally.
If Saints safety Marcus Williams had tackled Diggs instead of trying an ill-fated undercut, the story of that game would have been about yet another comeback engineered by Drew Brees.
"We did everything we could at the end of that game to go win it, and unfortunately they made a great play that allowed them to win it," Brees said. "So I let it go pretty quick. I guess it wasn't meant to be."
Though he remains a promising second-year player, Williams has had a hard time handling his infamy .
"It's another game," he repeated each time the subject was broached by reporters this week.
Even Diggs ducked the media this week. As for the revenge factor? The Saints dismissed that as fast as Diggs raced to the end zone that day. The Vikings did, too.
"I think the Saints will come in with a chip on their shoulder because that's who they are," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
Here are some other key angles to follow for the game:
At age 39, Brees has completed better than 77 percent of his passes this season for 1,870 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. In beating the Baltimore Ravens last week, Brees became the fourth player in NFL history with 500 or more career touchdown passes.
The Vikings might be without top cornerback Xavier Rhodes, which could mean a big test for rookie Holton Hill.
"I'm really not worried about this guy as far as the game being too big for him or anything like that if he has to play," Zimmer said of Hill. "I feel like he's a competitor. But he's going to get in some matchups that may not be great."
With the whiff by Williams at the worst possible time as a prime example, there's no defensive skill more vital than tackling. The Vikings have been burned more than usual this season in pass coverage, but they've been sound on the ground with an average of 89.7 rushing yards allowed per game. With cornerback Trae Waynes, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks among the standouts, the Vikings have some of the surest tacklers in the league.
"In today's NFL, the way everybody's playing in space now, if you're not a good tackler in space it makes it really hard to be a good defensive team," Zimmer said.
GOING FOR IT
The Saints have run a fourth-down offensive play eight times in six games, converting seven.
"That gives us confidence when you've got a coach that believes in his players," running back Alvin Kamara said. "It's cool to have that type of coach where he gives us opportunities to prove ourselves."
The Vikings have stopped four of the seven fourth-down plays against them. During their current three-game winning streak, they've thwarted 28 of 32 third downs and reclaimed the top spot in the league with a 23.4 percent conversion rate allowed.
Last season, the Saints began to experiment with third-string quarterback Taysom Hill's versatility by letting him cover kicks. This year, he has on several short-yardage occasions replaced Brees under center as a change-of-pace, read-option quarterback. Hill also has executed fake punts as a runner and a thrower, caught a pass and even took his first pitch as a running back last week.
"He's powerful. He's got speed," Kamara said. "I love having him. I wouldn't want him to be nowhere else."
Between Brees and Hill on the depth chart is Teddy Bridgewater, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Jets two months ago. Though he's not likely to see the field, this will be Bridgewater's first visit to Minnesota as an opponent after playing his first four seasons for the Vikings.
"He's got a lot of really good traits. You can tell he's a guy that guys really like and will follow, and that's what you need at the quarterback position," Brees said.
If Bridgewater had not suffered that devastating knee injury in 2016, he'd probably still be the face of the franchise in Minnesota instead of Kirk Cousins.
"Like I've said a million times, I thought he'd be the quarterback for the rest of my career," Zimmer said. "I love the kid. I love his nature, competitiveness, everything about him."
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