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The what-ifs and butterfly effects of the Minneapolis Miracle

By Matthew Coller

As the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints get set to play a rematch of the Minneapolis Miracle Game on Sunday Night Football, there will be many looks back at the play and the people involved. Judd Zulgad and Matthew Coller decided to look at how the Vikings ended up in that moment and what it meant for the end of the 2017 season and beyond. So here are Matthew and Judd’s what-ifs and butterfly effects of Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown to beat the Saints…

Matthew’s what-if: Adam Thielen’s no-catch

In the midst of a hot streak in which the Vikings won nine games in a row, they traveled to face Carolina in a game that could play a role in determining whether they would have home field advantage throughout the playoffs or if that honor would go to the Philadelphia Eagles.

It was hardly the Vikings’ sharpest game. They allowed a 60-yard touchdown before Panthers fans even settled into their seats. But the Vikings hung around and had the ball at the Carolina 4-yard line down 14-10 with 0:16 remaining in the first half. Quarterback Case Keenum flipped a pass into the back of the endzone for Adam Thielen, who slightly bobbled the ball on the way to the ground. It was ruled a touchdown, then immediately overturned to the outrage of Vikings fans and head coach Mike Zimmer. According to the league’s 2018 standards for a catch, Thielen’s grab would have had a touchdown.

It’s impossible to say exactly how the game would have turned out with a touchdown rather than field goal, but the Vikings rarely gave up leads with the No. 1 defense. You have to wonder: If Thielen’s catch ended up as a touchdown, would the Vikings have beaten Carolina, gone 14-2 with easy wins over the likes of Green Bay, Cincinnati and Chicago and won the NFC. They would have played Atlanta — a team they beat on the road — at home and then seen the Eagles, Saints, Panthers or Rams at US Bank Stadium rather than going on the road.

The Vikings defense was a different kind of monster at home last season, in large part because of how the crowd helps along their pass rush. Would Zimmer’s defense have slowed down those teams with the home field advantage? Or would they have ended up matching up with the Saints in the NFC title game and having Brees repeat his second half performance and leading New Orleans to victory? We’ll never know. Thanks, old catch rule.

Matthew’s butterfly effect: The emotions, the offseason

Players and coaches alike did not want to make excuses for their 38-7 loss to the Eagles, but it was impossible to ignore the emotional outburst and subsequent wild week leading up to the NFC Championship game. If the Vikings hadn’t allowed Brees’s comeback and simply stopped him on fourth down on the Saints’ final drive to win the game, maybe the Vikings would have put on a better show against the Eagles. As memorable as the play was, it’s effect may have been that the team couldn’t put the same type of energy into the NFC title game as they would have otherwise.

In the same vain, the emotions of the loss to Philly may have impacted how the Vikings approached the offseason. Zimmer assuredly went in search of solutions to the ways Philadelphia beat his top-ranked defense for 38 points — and may have over-adjusted, if you believe Anthony Barr’s comments recently about needing to “simplify.”

And the Vikings would certainly argue their decision to draft Mike Hughes had much more to with him being a great prospect (which he is) than stocking up their defense to respond to upcoming opponents’ attempt to recreate the Philly experience, but it’s hard not to wonder if they passed on a guard in the first round in favor of a defensive player because of the NFC Championship results. Same goes for signing Sheldon Richardson, which has turned out to be a terrific move.

Judd’s what-if: Sam Bradford’s injury

Case Keenum started the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the New Orleans Saints last January, but it was Sam Bradford who gave the Saints defense real problems.

That came in the Week 1 meeting between the Vikings and Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium, four months before they met for the right to go to the NFC title game and Keenum and Stefon Diggs authored “The Minneapolis Miracle.”

Bradford, beginning his second season with the Vikings, didn’t just match Drew Brees in that Monday night game, he outplayed the future Hall of Famer. Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards with three touchdowns and had a 143 passer rating in a 29-19 victory; Brees finished 27 of 37 passes for 291 yards with a touchdown and 104.7 rating.

Bradford showed up with a balky knee at Winter Park the day after that victory and his season was finished.

Keenum stepped in for magical ride that didn’t come to a crashing thud until the NFC championship game in Philadelphia. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer always seemed to know Keenum’s success was fool’s gold, a feeling did not exist with Bradford.

And if Bradford had remained healthy – remember how good he looked that night against the Saints, far from the broken-down guy who has been benched by Arizona – the defensive-first Vikings could have made a similar run behind Bradford and the brilliant play calling of Pat Shumur.

The far-more conservative Bradford also would have played a better game in Philadelphia than Keenum, although the Vikings’ defensive meltdown likely would have meant defeat remained inevitable.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

A healthy Bradford would have meant the Vikings would never have pursued Kirk Cousins, that Keenum would have either returned as a backup or gone elsewhere and that Bradford would have headed into 2018 as the Vikings’ starter.

Zimmer certainly seemed to have more faith in Bradford than he did in Keenum but the results of this decision could have been devastating. Fast forward to today and how Bradford looks completely broken down. At some point that was coming and if it hadn’t been in 2017 it would have been in 2018.

That means that Keenum or another backup likely would be starting today against the Saints instead of Cousins, who has flaws but is putting together a very strong statistical campaign. It’s likely the Vikings would have decided handing the starting job back to Teddy Bridgewater would have been too risky.

Bradford’s knee essentially ending his season when it did in 2017, gave the Vikings time to come up with a far better plan for 2018. Otherwise, today’s stories heading might be focused on the continued uncertainty the Vikings’ franchise has long dealt with at the most important position in sports.

Judd’s butterfly effect: The near Saints comeback

The Vikings’ victory over the New Orleans Saints in an NFC Divisional Round playoff game last January at U.S. Bank Stadium always will be known for the play that ended it. Case Keenum’s 61-yard pass to Stefon Diggs on the final play quickly was dubbed “The Minneapolis Miracle.”

But the magical finish of that game scrubbed away the memory that the Vikings held a 17-0 lead at halftime and appeared well on their way to advancing to the NFC title game without so much as a hiccup.

Before Saints quarterback Drew Brees began picking apart the Vikings’ defense in the second half, he looked like just another flustered quarterback going against Mike Zimmer’s defense. Brees ended the opening 30 minutes having completed only 8-of-18 passes for 117 yards with two interceptions and a 26.6 passer rating.

If the Vikings hadn’t started to come apart in the second half, if they hadn’t needed a finish that thrilled Vikings fans but drained the team, if their defense had continued to limit Brees, there is a case to be made that the result in Philadelphia the following week would have been far different.

Saints coach Sean Payton and Brees clearly exploited weaknesses in one of the NFL’s best defense that Eagles coach Doug Pederson pounced on and used to his advantage in a shockingly easy 38-7 victory over the Vikings the following week.

If the Saints did not provide that blueprint, do the Vikings return to U.S Bank Stadium to play New England in the Super Bowl? Are the Vikings finally in possession of their first Lombardi Trophy? It certainly seems plausible that Mike Zimmer and his team could have been fitted with rings by now.

The post The what-ifs and butterfly effects of the Minneapolis Miracle appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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