In the end, one of the keys to the New Orleans Saints resurgence contributed to their dramatic downfall.
A young, rebuilt secondary helped rejuvenate the defense as the Saints won the NFC South and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
But in the divisional playoff game at Minnesota on Sunday, the secondary's youthfulness proved to be a liability. The most glaring mistake came when rookie safety Marcus Williams missed a tackle on Stefon Diggs, allowing Diggs to complete a 61-yard touchdown on the final play that gave Minnesota a 29-24 victory.
"It was just my play to make," said Williams, a second-round draft choice from Utah. "The ball was in the air, and I didn't go attack it. He came down, made a great play and that's on me.
"I just got to be that guy and go up and get the ball. As a safety back there, you got to be the eraser, and that was my job. ... You know you got to save the game."
The secondary had other shortcomings, allowing 318 passing yards and committing a series of penalties that contributed to Vikings points. Second-year cornerback Ken Crawley was called for pass-interference penalties for 20 and 34 yards that preceded a field goal that gave Minnesota a 10-0 lead. Williams, who had a third-quarter interception that set up New Orleans' second touchdown, committed pass interference in the end zone on a play from the 4, preceding a touchdown that gave the Vikings a 17-0 lead.
New Orleans scored on four of its five second-half possessions and took fourth-quarter leads of 21-20 and 24-23 before letting the game and the season slip away.
"This will take a while to get over," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "At some point it will pass; it will just take a little bit of time. Overall, I was proud of the fight and the way we played and responded in the second half. We got ourselves in a hole in the first half and in the end we came up short."
REPORT CARD VS. VIKINGS
PASSING OFFENSE: B
QB Drew Brees completed 25-of-40 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions. Brees wasn't as accurate as he usually is during a scoreless first half, but he was outstanding in the second half. As usual, WR Michael Thomas was Brees' most productive target, gaining 85 yards and scoring two touchdowns on seven catches, but Ted Ginn Jr. had the most catches (eight), finishing with 72 yards. Brees was sacked twice.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C
The Saints weren't able to run consistently well, continuing a late-season shortcoming. Their 80 rushing yards and average of 3.3 yards per rush matched their game and per-carry averages during the final six games. Rookie Alvin Kamara had limited success with 43 yards on 11 carries and Mark Ingram II wasn't much of a factor, gaining 25 yards on 10 rushes.
PASS DEFENSE: D
Case Keenum passed for 318 yards and the Saints pass defense hurt itself with three interference penalties. But the defining play for the pass defense and the game itself was the game-winning touchdown pass that featured Williams' whiff on Diggs' game-winning play.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus
The Saints contained the Vikings run game, holding them to 95 rushing yards and a 3.3 average. Latavius Murray had 50 yards on 19 rushes and Jerick McKinnon had 34 yards on eight rushes. Each had a long run of 14 yards, and McKinnon's was a touchdown.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Wil Lutz made a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left, which very nearly was a winning kick. He missed a 58-yarder late in the first half. Morstead averaged 48.0 yards on four punts and placed one inside the 10 despite the rib injury suffered at the end of a 19-yard punt return. Gerald Hodges deflected a Vikings punt that traveled just 1 yard to the Minnesota 40, leading to New Orleans' final touchdown.
The Saints had a poor first half, falling behind 17-0, but turned things around dramatically in the second half and were poised to pull off a remarkable come-from-behind victory until the last-play gaffe by Williams. Payton exhausted his challenges with two failed ones in the second half, but both were significant enough plays and close enough calls to justify the challenges.
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