Keith Strudler: The Last Play

Jan 17, 2018

Calling Sunday’s last second touchdown pass by the Minnesota Vikings over New Orleans the greatest game winning score in NFL playoff history would bother a) Pittsburgh Steelers fans who assume the 1972 Immaculate Reception holds that title in perpetuity, and b) New Orleans Saints fans who might suffer flashbacks every time someone shows that highlight. But whether it was the actual greatest of all time or simply part of Mt. Rushmore, make no mistake that Minnesota’s unlikely walk-off touchdown will leave a mark.

In case you missed it, which to be fair I did, Minnesota – playing at home – found themselves down one on their own 39 yard line with 10 seconds left in an NFC Divisional Playoff game. The winner – which then seemed like it would be the New Orleans Saints – would travel this Sunday to Philadelphia to play for a spot in the Super Bowl. Minnesota needed a field goal or a touchdown to win, but with time wearing thin and no time outs left, effectively moving into field goal range would be challenging. Which also meant that New Orleans could play a variant of what’s called a prevent defense. In other words, bend but don’t break so much that they allow Minnesota to score. Unfortunately for the Saints, they broke.

Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum completed a pass to Stefan Diggs at around the Saints 25, where he should have been tackled by Marcus Williams, in bounds, game over. Only in Keystone Cops fashion, Williams dove under Diggs and took out another Saints defender in the process. Diggs somehow kept his balance, stayed in bounds, and ran 25 yards untouched for the game winning and game-ending touchdown. The home crowd erupts, the Internet breaks, and the city of New Orleans sinks yet another inch on the weight of its own despair.

For the Vikings, who are 0-4 in Super Bowl history and seem historically adept at grasping defeat from the jaws of victory, Sunday’s stroke of luck seemed almost divine, perhaps that fate would finally change for the near-miss franchise. That might be true. On the other hand, they might lose to Philly this week, or to the AFC champions the week after that, making this just another stellar regular season that amounted to nothing. Only time will tell the true significance of Sunday’s heroics.

In the aftermath of games like this with plays like that, coaches and even players – particularly those on the losing side – will try to put the defining moment into context. Things like, we didn’t lose on that one play, or it’s a team effort, or, if it weren’t for all the great plays Marcus Williams made all season, we would have never been here in the first place. They’re cliché, whether they’re true or not. It’s like your car engine dying in the middle of the desert, and buzzards a flying all around and then saying, well, if it weren’t for that engine, we’d never have even made it to Arizona in the first place. There’s a fine line between explanation and rationalization, something I’m told frequently by people in my life – although with slightly different diction.

But the reality of sport is this. Its history does often come down to singular moments that determine not simply the outcome of a game, but sometimes the fate and future of its participants and maybe more. And I know that sounds dramatic. But in context, this is a natural extension of collectively caring so much about winning and losing.  Want examples? How about Scott Norwood missing a game winning field goal for Buffalo at the end of Super Bowl XXV in 1991, the first of four consecutive Super Bowl losses for the Bills. If Norwood’s kick went just a bit more to the left and Buffalo wins – well who knows. Same with Bill Buckner in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. Or the last touchdown of the national championship football game between Alabama and Georgia, which – and this is entirely possible – may be the one and only chance Georgia coach Kirby Smart will ever have to win a national title, which I assume to be the singular professional goal of his lifetime. And it’s gone in one blown coverage in overtime. To be more granular, there’s a whole lot of us out there who still remember the one game that got away – maybe college, high school, maybe JCC soccer, whatever – and the one play we still regret. It’s silly, but for those of us who marked our childhood by wins and losses, it is what it is.

Is that simply a reflection of the outsized and misprioritized nature of sports in this country – and probably the world? I guess so. But that’s tied to a much larger web of life’s challenges, where, amongst other things, sport is a rare refuge from the reality of our condition. It’s also a reminder that in life, some moments count more than others. Especially when time is scarce and the road ahead is long. But you don’t need to remind the New Orleans Saints about that. They’ll remember, even if they’d rather not.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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