MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Marcus Williams sat sobbing in front of his cubicle in the silenced New Orleans locker room, his face buried in a folded white towel.
Deep inside Minnesota’s stadium that erupted in victorious euphoria a few minutes earlier, Williams was having a hard time grappling with what had just happened. The rest of his Saints teammates were, too, after a 61-yard touchdown pass by Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs burned Williams on the game’s final play and gave the Vikings a 29-24 victory for a place in the NFC championship game .
“You can’t let it beat you down,” Williams said, his eyes still reddened by the tears. “I’m going to take it upon myself to do all I can to never let that happen again. If it happens again, then I shouldn’t be playing.”
Williams, the rookie free safety and second-round draft pick from Utah who was one of several new players who helped the Saints transform a once-lagging defense, was the last man in coverage when the Vikings sent Kyle Rudolph, Jarius Wright and Diggs on routes toward the sideline with no timeouts remaining. Diggs was the deepest, and as he jumped to catch the ball, Williams went low to try to undercut him with an awkwardly executed attempt at a tackle.
“It was just my play to make,” Williams said. “The ball was in the air. I can go attack it.”
Diggs, who made sure to note right before the catch that Williams was the only one behind him, kept his balance as he landed and deftly kept his feet in bounds. Then he spun around and kept on running into the end zone to queue up the celebration.
“As a safety back there, you’ve got to be the eraser,” Williams said. “Last play of the game, you’ve got to go do it. You know you’ve got to save the game.”
The Saints were both defensive and supportive of their first-year teammate, who could play another decade in the NFL and not experience a similar devastation with the stakes so high and the chance for failure so low.
“He’s got to keep his head up,” said cornerback and fellow rookie Marshon Lattimore. “I’m not going to say he’s not feeling bad about the play, but we’ve got his back. We’re young, and we’re trying to come back next year. Marcus is a special player. You can’t let that one play, as big as it was, turn you against him. He’s been playing great all year. Just didn’t get the tackle this time.”
Defensive end Cameron Jordan tried to take on some of the blame.
“Had I been a half-step faster and been able to get off the tight end and the tackle and completely take over that play,” Jordan said, he could have sacked Keenum before the “Minneapolis Miracle,” or the modern-day “Immaculate Reception,” ever made it to the air.
The Vikings finished with 403 total yards, though the defense recovered well enough from a 17-0 deficit to give Drew Brees the opportunity to throw for three touchdown passes over the final 16:16 of the game and drive the Saints in position for Wil Lutz’s go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left.
Williams intercepted Keenum earlier to set up the second touchdown drive, and the Saints sacked Keenum twice. In the end, though, all that mattered was the failure to tackle Diggs on the fateful final play.
“You work so hard for a goal. It’s right there, and you come up short,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “You can imagine anybody, how they would feel. It’s just a learning opportunity for all of us.”