Back to scene of Min­neapo­lis Mir­a­cle

Vik­ings know New Or­leans will have chip on shoul­der af­ter crush­ing play­off de­feat

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

MIN­NEAPO­LIS — 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.

The Mary­land alum­nus 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 throw­catch-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 sec­ondyear 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.” The ba­sics: 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. Hill’s as­cent: 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, read­op­tion 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.” Teddy talk: 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.

Bril­liant Brees:

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