|National Football League|
Stefon Diggs erased decades of Minnesota heartache
By ARNIE STAPLETON
An exceptional medley of great awareness, terrific balance and deft reflexes allowed Stefon Diggs to ad lib and seize both the ball and the moment in the Vikings' demon-exorcising "Minneapolis Miracle ."
Diggs was supposed to go out of bounds if Case Keenum threw his way on the play dubbed "Seven Heaven," although in countless rehearsals at practice never did the pass go to the deep receiver, according to teammate Jarius Wright.
Ten seconds and no timeouts remained when Keenum dropped back from his 39 on third-and-10 in the hushed U.S. Bank Stadium, another haunting playoff heartbreak looming for Minnesota . New Orleans had taken a 24-23 lead just 15 seconds earlier.
The Saints had three defensive backs guarding the sideline as Kyle Rudolph, Wright and Diggs all ran sideline routes from the right of their formation.
Diggs was the deepest, with his break coming at about 25 yards, and just as he swiveled his hips he noticed nothing but green grass and purple end zone behind rookie free safety Marcus Williams, who was closing fast.
Diggs turned back to see the ball heading his way.
"I was thinking, `Catch it, get out of bounds and maybe kick a field goal," Diggs said. "I took a picture before I turned around to catch the ball. There was only one guy there. If he slipped, then I was going to try to stay up and keep it going."
Williams, who had a key interception on a floater to Diggs in the third quarter, arrived a tad early. A pass interference flag would stop the clock with about 5 seconds left, giving the Vikings a chance at a field goal.
Williams awkwardly whiffed on Diggs, taking out cornerback Ken Crawley as Diggs came down, tucked the ball in his right arm and stuck his left hand in the turf to stay up.
If he stumbles there, maybe he gets caught and time runs out. But he kept his balance, his cool - and stayed in bounds - shooting toward the end zone like a sprinter coming out of the blocks.
His 61-yard touchdown catch was one of the NFL's all-time last-play stunners and it erased four decades of heartache for a franchise that was victimized by Drew Pearson's original "Hail Mary" catch; Gary Anderson missing his only field goal of the season in the NFC title game; Brett Favre throwing across his body for a game-destroying pick in another NFC championship contest; and Blair Walsh shanking a short field goal against Seattle.
While the delirium echoed, Williams, the 42nd overall selection in last April's NFL draft, sat sobbing in front of his cubicle in the Saints' locker room.
"I'm going to take it upon myself," Williams said after composing himself for a stand-up performance in front of the assembled media, "to make sure nothing like this happens again to me."
While the magical ending in Minnesota dominated the playoff discussions, there were other notable calls in the divisional round:
PAYTON'S CHALLENGES: Saints coach Sean Payton unsuccessfully challenged two calls on the same series in the fourth quarter: Wright's 27-yard catch and Keenum's knee not being down before he released the ball.
"Two very bad challenges by the Saints," tweeted Tony Dungy. "Not sure who is talking to Sean Payton in the Coaches booth but they have given him poor information."
Payton explained afterward that the monitor in the team's booth was malfunctioning, so he didn't have an assistant coach warning him not to throw his red challenge flag.
MOVING ON: Tennessee's 35-14 loss at New England turned out to be Mike Mularkey `s last as head coach of the Titans. He was fired Monday after leading them to their first playoff victory in 14 seasons.
A week after controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said Mularkey "will be our head coach moving forward," she dismissed him, saying, "It became evident that we saw different paths to achieve greater success."
Of the six head coaches ousted this cycle, only Mularkey made it to the playoffs.
FORGETTABLE FOURTH-AND-1s: Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley made two curious calls on fourth-and-1 in Pittsburgh's 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
One was a pitch to Le'Veon Bell, who was dropped for a loss, and the other an incompletion to Juju Smith-Schuster.
Maybe Haley didn't know Ben Roethlisberger is 18 for 19 on fourth-and-1 keepers in his career.
LOOKING AHEAD? On Saturday, Bell riled up the Jaguars and their fans when he tweeted, "I love round 2's ... we'll have two round 2's in back to back weeks ..."
Bell was assuming a rematch with the Patriots next weekend to avenge a 24-21 loss last month, the Steelers' only defeat since a 30-9 home loss to Jacksonville early in the season.
Bell wasn't the only one presuming a Steelers-Patriots conference championship rematch.
In response to a recent quote from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, who said Pittsburgh would beat New England no matter where the AFC championship was played, the Jaguars had some fun following their big win Sunday, tweeting: "You can play them on (at)EAMaddenNFL all offseason."
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With contributions from AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
Updated January 15, 2018