The Minnesota Vikings were always going to need some lucky breaks to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Even if Minnesota had played its best case scenario game—and it probably played something very close to that—the Saints were going to have to trip over themselves at some point for the Vikings to escape the Superdome with a win. This was a 13-3 team, and arguably the one in the NFC most poised to make a Super Bowl run given the questions in San Francisco and Green Bay.
The Vikings played a great football game all the way around, and full credit to them for getting Donkey Kong off their backs with that win. That was about as big of an exorcism as you can have in one football game, from Kirk Cousins finally winning a playoff game to the franchise itself putting to bed some of the ghosts from their last trip to the Superdome a decade prior. But they needed a helping hand to get it over the finish line in their 26-20 win to advance to the divisional round.
The Saints were more than happy to oblige all day.
They had multiple opportunities to drop a hammer on the Vikings, including one right off the jump. There were multiple inflection points in this game where the Saints had every opportunity to seize the game, and they let them all slip away.
Here are eight small plays where the Saints lost the game, with screenshots brought to you by the NFL’s official highlight pack.
1. The early missed opportunity
Right from the start, the Saints had a chance to mount serious pressure on the Vikings with what was supposed to be the strength of the team. The one thing Minnesota couldn’t afford was a big early mistake, and then Adam Thielen went and fumbled on the third play from scrimmage. The Saints quickly moved the ball inside the 10, and then made the first of many mistakes on the day.
On second-and-goal from the 8, Jared Cook (#87) is wide open at the 5. Harrison Smith (#22) had a brief loss of footing, as you can see with him off-balanced on the goalline. If Drew Brees (#9) puts this on target, Cook will have a chance to turn upfield to his left and score while Smith is staggering. He can at least move the ball down to within a couple yards of a touchdown.
Brees straight up misses him.
That is about as simple a throw as a quarterback can have, and Brees put it well off target. Cook had to dive to his right just to haul it in, and by then Smith has recovered enough to make the tackle at the spot of the catch.
This play forces the Saints to pass on third down instead of either scoring or being close enough to run the ball, and Brees is sacked. The Saints settled for a field goal off the Minnesota turnover and give the Vikings a “get out of jail free” card after what could have been a devastating early turnover.
2. Two missed tackles extend a Vikings drive
The next big moment where the Saints really kept the Vikings in the game came right here with just under 8:30 remaining in the second quarter. New Orleans just scored its first touchdown of the day to go up 10-3, and now had Minnesota in a pivotal third-and-7.
Before this play, the Saints drove 70 yards in 2:12 of game time, and the Vikings had two unsuccessful offensive plays that took less than a minute of game time. The Saints are clicking, the Superdome is rocking, and the Vikings are on the ropes. A failure to convert this first down means the Saints will immediately get the ball back with a chance to go up two scores.
It’s really hard to overstate how crucial this play was for the Vikings. If nothing else, they needed a first down just to give their tired defense a rest.
Kyle Rudolph (#82) catches this ball six yards shy of the sticks. Marshon Lattimore (#23) has the angle to tackle him short of a first down. Marcus Williams (#26) is also trailing him from above in case he tries to cut it upfield. Rudolph has absolutely no business picking up this first down.
Seriously. For all intents and purposes, Rudolph is dead and buried right here. Lattimore and Williams both have an opportunity to tackle him and force a fourth-and-2 decision from the Vikings’ own 33.
Two missed tackles later, Rudolph has the first down. This extended the drive, and it was a drive where Minnesota held the ball for almost six more minutes. It ended in a field goal that cut the lead to 10-6, and really stopped the bleeding on a game that was getting out of hand. It also put 13 snaps of wear and tear on the Saints’ defense, and that ended up becoming important later in the game as those piled up.
All of it should have been stopped before it started on this one third down play that will be largely forgotten as the story of this game is told and re-told.
3. The underthrow that led to seven points
There are a few possible outcomes out of this one. It’s third-and-7 for the Saints immediately after the Minnesota field goal, and Brees takes a shot. It wasn’t the best idea with double coverage down the field, but Minnesota’s coverage is very good on this play. He has two checkdown options, but both were well short of a first down and would’ve yielded a punt barring a missed tackle in the open field.
Still, this play has a chance to work. There’s a chance to squeeze this ball in to Ted Ginn Jr. (#19), or possibly get a pass interference call as Trae Waynes (#26) is draped all over him. Even an incompletion wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, as the Saints would still get a chance to flip the field with a punt.
Once again, a bad throw from Brees costs the Saints big time.
Waynes is all over Ginn here. There is a definite chance of a penalty here if the ball is catchable for him. There’s even a referee standing right there to make the call. But it’s an underthrown ball, and that allows Anthony Harris (#41) to intercept it and return it 30 yards the other way.
The Vikings took the ball off this turnover and scored their first touchdown of the game to go up 13-10 late in the first half.
4. The Lutz missed field goal
Wil Lutz (#3) is a great kicker. He was 32-for-36 this season on field goals, and 22-for-24 indoors. He hit 80% of his field goals from at least 40 yards this season, including a 58-yarder at one point.
This 43-yard kick to tie the game going into halftime is more than within his range. A make here is a huge blow to Minnesota, who thought it would be going into halftime with the lead after the late touchdown.
The snap is good. The hold is good. There is no pressure or threat of a block. Lutz just shanks it wide right.
The Vikings allowed 75 yards in 18 seconds to lead to this kick, but they were let completely off the hook for this stunningly bad late-half game management by the missed field goal.
5. The missed block
The play here is a little push pass to Alvin Kamara (#41). You can already see Kamara heading towards Brees to receive it. The idea here is for the offensive line to pull to the left, get Kamara on a cut to the left already in stride, and pick up the yard to extend the drive.
Admittedly, this is one of the plays here where the Vikings deserve more credit than the Saints do blame. This is an absolutely outstanding bit of play recognition from Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. You can see Barr (#55) telling Kendricks (#54) right in the screenshot to shift over to his right because the play is going to the Saints’ left.
Barr and Kendricks’ awareness blew this play up for the Saints. Still, it has a chance to work for a second.
Kamara has three blocks sealing this play up. Lil’Jordan Humphrey (#84), Erik McCoy (#78) and Tre’Quan Smith (#10) are all winning here. Terron Armstead (#72) is on his way out to make another block on the outside to create a seam. But the Saints make one mistake here, and it blows up the entire drive.
Nobody blocks Kendricks.
Kendricks blows straight past Andrus Peat (#75). Everybody else on Minnesota’s defense is accounted for here. This play goes for at least a first down, and maybe a lot more, if Peat makes his block on Kendricks here. If he can even slow him down a little, Kamara probably gets back near the line of scrimmage and creates a chance to go for it on fourth-and-1.
Instead he whiffs, and the play results in a loss of six yards. The Saints were forced to punt as the combination of great situational awareness and one missed block sent a possession by the wayside.
6. The blown coverage
It’s third-and-9 here, and Kirk Cousins is about to uncork a deep ball to Thielen. He is being covered by Lattimore. Great receiver vs. great corner on a pivotal play in the game.
And it starts out the way you would expect it to. It’s tight. Lattimore is hanging with Thielen step for step.
Until Lattimore inexplicably turns his head away from both the ball and the receiver.
By the time Lattimore turns his head back around, it’s way too late. Thielen has two steps on him, and is about to catch a pass for a gain of 34 yards.
What happened here? Only Lattimore knows. It was an unexplainable moment. Did he lose track of the ball? Did he think Thielen was on his other shoulder?
Whatever happened here, it was another one of the little moments that added up to big trouble for the Saints. A half-second turn of the head is the difference between the Vikings punting the ball instead of having it in the red zone. Five plays later, this deep ball was cashed into a touchdown to make the score 20-10 Minnesota.
7. The franchise QB fumbles away a chance
I won’t put too fine a point on this one. It was arguably the biggest play of the game, and breaking it down too much would defeat the “little plays added up” purpose here.
Brees has to get rid of this ball. There are ample opportunities for him to, from a wide open Ginn to Kamara across the middle of the field. He can even just threw it away and live to fight for another down. But he holds it too long trying to make a big play, and the result is a fumble that meant the final trip to the red zone for New Orleans ended up without any points.
8. The questionable clock management
The Saints were called for an illegal shift penalty on the spike here with 21 seconds remaining in the game.
This penalty comes with a 10-second runoff, which could have been prevented if Sean Payton had called his last timeout.
With 21 seconds remaining, you have at least three plays, maybe four if you can get some quick hitters to the sideline. If Payton was thinking about trying to end the game in regulation with a touchdown, he would have called timeout and saved himself a couple plays.
It seemed like the obvious move. He even let 40 seconds of clock burn earlier by not electing to use a timeout before the 2-minute warning after the Saints got a third-down stop. Even that decision was questionable, but this shouldn’t be. He saved his timeout for a reason. He wanted to have a chance to stop the clock for a big moment on the final possession.
And then he didn’t call it here? He let the clock go down to 11 seconds, essentially taking the opportunity to move the ball down from three or four snaps to one or two. This is much less value for the timeout with 11 seconds, just because there will be fewer opportunities to call it.
The odds the Saints were going to move the ball 31 yards in those final seconds seemed unlikely, but Payton didn’t even want to give it a try.
In this moment, he conceded a chance to win the game in favor of overtime.
And his team never touched the ball in that overtime as the Vikings marched 75 yards to end the game.
It’s certainly a different kind of pain from what the Saints areused to. They have lost six playoff games in the last decade, and all of them came in one-score games with a key moment late in the fourth quarter. Most of those heartbreaks are so iconic, they can be recalled in a few words.
Beast Quake. Smith to Davis. Colston’s lateral. The Minneapolis Miracle. That no call.
One play to circle. One moment to agonize over. One thought to have.
But on Sunday, there were multiple. I highlighted eight, and there were more moments than even just those where this game was defined.
Whether that’s easier to take or not for the Saints is another discussion. But it will linger all the same.
As good as the Saints are, and as likely as they are to be back in the postseason next season given how strong the roster looks, seasons like that are a rare breed.
New Orleans tied its franchise record for wins in a regular season with 13, and didn’t even end up with a playoff win to show for it.
And it took a total team effort across an entire game to make it happen. That pain will stick for everybody.
Brees will have to think about his misses in the first half and his fumble in the red zone. Lattimore will have all offseason to think about why he turned his head away from Thielen on the deep ball. Williams will wish he had made the second quarter tackle on Rudolph that led to a Minnesota field goal. Peat will think about his missed block on Kendricks. Lutz will rue the fact that his field goal at the end of the second half would have been a game-winner if not for his miss at the end of the first.
Moment-by-moment—almost like a comic strip unfolding panel-by-panel—the Saints coughed up this game. But there was no laughing at the end of this strip.
Just the stunned silence of about 70,000 people realizing that their team would be exiting the postseason on the sourest note possible.