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Case Keenum’s backyard football magic has the Vikings one step closer to a dream

Keenum had the ball and the Vikings’ season in his hands, and he knew exactly what to do with it.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Sean Payton in his postgame news conference hopped onto the dais and began to relive the nightmare ending his New Orleans Saints had just endured — only to be zapped by a television monitor to his left that kept showing the Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs game-ending dagger over and over and over ...

So while talking, Payton kept occasionally looking left and then back at reporters and then left again. It was a rubber-necking moment that fit when a season was ripped and your entire franchise’s emotions were cracked and smattered across the floor.

“This will take a little time to get over,” Payton, the Saints head coach, said.

At least he could speak. That was more than Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams could initially do. He whiffed on the tackle that sprung Diggs free. His eyes were red and his heart was heavy. Finally, he later managed, “It was my fault. I will learn from this.”

The Vikings took a practical approach to it all.

Their 29-24 victory — ignited by Keenum to Diggs for 61 yards in a staggering pass play that began with 10 seconds left and finished with the clock at zero — vaulted them into the NFC Championship game on next Sunday at Philadelphia. On this Sunday in U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings (14-3) appreciated and understood the moment.

Often that is easier to do from a perspective of joy rather than pain.

“I really feel for their safety (Williams), but that’s how it is in the NFL and especially in the playoffs,” Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon said. “The way this game twisted back and forth, we could have found a way to lose it. I’ll take this outcome any day.”

Minnesota led 20-14 with 10:12 left. New Orleans led 21-10 with 3:01 left. Minnesota led 23-21 with 1:29 left. New Orleans led 24-23 with 25 seconds left.

With 10 seconds remaining, Keenum found Diggs and Williams whiffed.

The play started at the Minnesota 39, Diggs caught the ball at the New Orleans 35, and then he made his historical, monumental dash.

“I felt him brush by me,” Diggs said. “And then I thought, `Wow, he missed!”’

So instead of running out of bounds and giving the Vikings a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal, Diggs decided he’d just win it in a Minneapolis miracle that instantly becomes a part of NFL playoff lore.

His offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, raced to the end zone to find Diggs and to embrace him.

“We were flooding that area with routes and the goal was to get the ball to one of the receivers there, get out of bounds and try to win it with a field goal,” Shurmur said. “But Stefon found a way to make a play that no one expected. I had to find him in the end zone to tell him how much I appreciate him as a competitor. This is the way he practices, it’s the way he plays, with something burning inside, and that is a spirit of competitiveness that I respect.”

It looked as if things would come much easier for the Vikings.

They led 17-0 at halftime and choked the Saints offense to a numbing 0-for-4 on third-down conversions. But the Saints won the third quarter 7-0 and the final quarter 17-12.

Still not enough.

“Shell-shocked,” Brees said. “That’s probably the craziest thing I’ve been a part of. Just unfortunate sequence of events there.”

Events the Vikings helped force.

“I was praying for Diggs to get out of bounds and save some time for the kick,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “You just don’t see stuff like this on the last play of the game. It’s crazy. As these games go on, the pressure builds and builds. You’ve got to roll with it. I think we did. Diggs did. He’s a playmaker.”

Keenum is, too.

Matched against the prolific Brees, Keenum was expected to be overmatched and possibly a weak link in comparison. As stout as the Vikings defense and special teams entered, clearly, Keenum had a role to play.

No team is winning a Divisional Round playoff game and reaching the NFC Championship game without its quarterback making a game-winning impact.

Keenum answered the Brees challenge. Both threw the ball 40 times. Both completed 25 passes. Keenum threw for more yards (318-294). Brees won the touchdown pass battle 3-1, but Keenum threw one fewer interception than Brees’ two.

And it was Keenum who found Diggs in the final seconds. It was Keenum who had the ball last in his hands and knew exactly what to do with it.

He said he just threw it, but actually he did much more than that.

He overcame the aura of Brees. He made a strong case that he is a better quarterback than his next foe, the Eagles’ Nick Foles. He gives the Vikings tangible hope that they can return here to U.S. Bank Stadium for Super Bowl 52. Everyone here is banking on that.

“Being a kid growing up, that’s what you do in the backyard,” Keenum said. “That’s what you dream about.”

In this league, there is often a fine line between a nightmare of despair and a dream of magical moments.

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