NEW ORLEANS — Redemption came tumbling out of the sky, a perfect rainbow ticketed for his outstretched hands, and all Adam Thielen had to do was catch it.
It was overtime Sunday in the Superdome. The Minnesota Vikings had squandered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead but won the coin toss, and they needed a touchdown to end the New Orleans Saints’ season without Drew Brees getting to take another snap. In the huddle, Kirk Cousins called a far cross, and Thielen lined up wide to the right.
By this point, the first quarter was a distant memory, and for Thielen that was a good thing. He’d started the game miserably, fumbling away the ball on the Vikings’ first drive and setting the Saints up for an early 3-0 lead. When he got back to the sideline, he made a motion with his hand that simulated flushing a toilet.
“Just flush that play away,” Thielen said. “It’s actually something from college, our coaches used to make us do — flush the bad play. We actually had a little mini toilet on the sideline and we’d have to go over and flush it. So that’s where that came from.”
The techniques of the Minnesota State-Mankato coaching staff having aided his mental recovery, Thielen was in pretty good psychological shape by the time the Vikings broke the huddle in overtime. He’d caught six passes for 86 yards and helped the Vikings build a 20-10 lead of which they needed every bit just to get to this point. So when Cousins called the play, he bounced out to his position wide to the right.
“That play, it’s something we haven’t tried in a long time,” Thielen said. “We’ve been practicing it, but I never thought we’d use it there.”
The name of the play? Sorry, dear reader, but that’s a place where this reporter came up short in his reporting.
“I don’t think I can tell you that, Dan,” Cousins said in the locker room when I innocently asked what the play was called. “I believe that’s classified information.”
Added Thielen: “It’s a long playcall, so I don’t remember the whole thing. I just know what I had on that play.”
Fair enough. Lined up across from Thielen was Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson, in the game in place of an injured Marshon Lattimore, who’d been shadowing Thielen for much of the game. This did not escape the attention of the Vikings. There was a single safety playing the post — Marcus Williams, of all people, Ghost of Vikings-Saints Playoff Game Past — and on the left side, Stefon Diggs was lined up against Janoris Jenkins. Two safeties — Vonn Bell and C.J. Gardner-Johnson — were in the box. Cousins, under center, called for the snap.
“All I know is, I had a one-on-one,” said Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill, whose terrifyingly difficult assignment on the play was to block Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. “I was just trying to hold on for dear life.”
As Cousins dropped back, O’Neill managed to keep Jordan just far enough wide. Gardner-Johnson blitzed. Bell hung briefly with tight end Kyle Rudolph, then passed him off to a linebacker and went in after Cousins. Williams moved to his right to help on Diggs, and that’s when Cousins saw what was going on deep down the right sideline.
“Man coverage,” Cousins said. “And Adam won.”
Thielen was the first read on the play, and the Vikings liked the matchup with Robinson. Thielen got past Robinson by just a sliver, but once Cousins saw Williams paying attention to Diggs’ side, he knew what he had to do.
Entering the game, Cousins was 0-10 as a Viking against teams that finished the season with 10 or more wins. He was 3-11-1 as a Viking against opponents that entered the game with a winning record. And in his career, he was 0-15 against teams that finished their season with a .700 or better winning percentage — the most such losses without a win by any quarterback in NFL history. One throw to beat the 13-3 Saints in a playoff game in their building. One throw to wipe away doubt that even, at one point this season, appeared to creep into his own locker room.
Further back in the Vikings’ memory banks than Thielen’s first-quarter fumble lived a play just like this one — a play from an ugly 16-6 loss in Chicago in Week 4. You might (or might not) remember that game as something of a low point for Cousins, as after it Thielen criticized him for missing too many big throws. “You have to be able to hit the deep balls,” Thielen said after that game, ostensibly referring to a play on which Thielen beat his man deep and had a touchdown if Cousins had made the throw, which he did not.
Fourteen weeks, eight wins and four losses later, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski sent in the exact same play — the “You have to be able to hit the deep balls” play — to try to win a playoff game in overtime in New Orleans.
“Protection held up,” Cousins said. “That’s a route I’ve run since my rookie year. Sometimes you hit it, and sometimes you don’t.”
He hit it.
Thielen, who had his first 100-yard receiving game since early October, made the 43-yard catch at the New Orleans 2-yard line, and three plays later Cousins found Rudolph in the back left corner of the end zone for the touchdown that sent the Vikings on to the next round of the playoffs with a 26-20 victory.
“Just go make a play,” Thielen said when asked what he was thinking coming out of the huddle. “When you get the right coverage and you get man coverage, it’s mano-a-mano. And when you have a quarterback that trusts you and gives you a chance, it’s obviously special to have a guy like that back there.”
When it was over, the Vikings were already turning their attention to Saturday’s divisional-round matchup in San Francisco. In the locker room, coach Mike Zimmer complimented the team on a great win but reminded his players of two years ago, when they beat the Saints in a playoff game on Diggs’ last-minute miracle play and then showed up in Philadelphia a week later and laid an egg in the NFC Championship Game. Then he gave the game ball to Cousins, who bellowed his trademark, “You like that?!” and sent the locker room into a frenzy.
“I’m thrilled we won a playoff game, and I just did my part,” Cousins said. “There’s a whole lot of reasons we won the game. Does the quarterback play a role in that? Yes, but it was a team win.”
A team win, sure, but one that came down to a quarterback swatting away the Saints and his doubters with one perfect throw at the perfect time.
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