By Jason Keidel
If these NFL playoffs have provided us an acute reminder, it’s that not all losses are the same.
Especially in New Orleans, where fans must feel knifed in the kidneys — or more vital organs — after arguably the worst loss in playoff history, in Minnesota on Sunday.
If you didn’t see the play, Stefon Diggs ran an out pattern about 25 yards down on the right. He leaped for Case Keenum’s pass, would surely be tackled inbounds, then game over. With no timeouts left, the Vikings were at the mercy of an unforgiving clock, with too many yards to go.
If you did watch the replay a few times you notice that not only did Marcus Williams whiff on Diggs, he also managed two swipe the legs out from the nearest defender, Ken Crawley, who may have had a chance to jump on Diggs had his teammate not flipped him like a bowling pin. Diggs landed, turned, planted his right hand on the ground to keep from falling, kept his right foot an inch from stepping out of bounds, saw no defenders, then dashed into history.
And so a surefire, 24-23 win morphed into the most haunted 10 seconds since the Immaculate Reception. Imagine the savage swing in emotion, on both sides. But particularly for New Orleans, which was dominated in the first half. Minnesota jumped on the Saints and looked to be much the better team, up, 17-0. Then the Saints found their mojo, as did their future Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees, who led a furious charge to take that lead with 25 seconds left. The Saints went from ambushed and shellshocked, to crawling back, to muscling ahead, to wondering how cold it would be in Philadelphia this coming weekend. To Diggs.
In the earlier game that day, the favored, hometown Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 45-42. But the Steelers gagged that game well before the clock drained dry, from awful fourth-down calls to a scalp-scratching onside kick with two timeouts and 2:18 on the clock. Jacksonville was just hungrier, better prepared, and better coached.
The Saints churned their way back to the top, only to have their guts ripped out by a secondary that was so surprisingly good this year, and a catalyst for this year’s team revival. For about a decade, the Saints were little more than a cover band with a great singer, Drew Brees and the Afterthoughts. Then the Saints built a complete team with by far the best 2017 draft in the sport. Only to have that happen.
And it begs, the question, one we’ve surely fielded from our friends or spouse or parents. Why do we put up with this?
We love sports for the zero-sum finality of the final score. But we also sign up for this, the journey, the mood swings, the pain and pleasure and mystery, to have one side sure of loss and the other sure of gain, only to have 10 seconds jammed into a gridiron blender, and have the impossible poured onto the field.
Neither franchise nor fanbase will forget a game like that. The stories will be passed like a baton down the generations. Where you were sitting, standing, shrieking, or crying when Diggs spun around and saw a free field before him, and the attendant horror and hysteria that came with that gallop to the goal line.
Why do we not only tolerate this, but also love it, and need it? Why are we so tethered to a team swathed in a particular color, to a group of men who don’t know us, who say they play for fans but really bleed for the billions the NFL spends in collective salaries? As Chazz Palminteri said to the boy in A Bronx Tale, don’t bother to root for Mickey Mantle; he doesn’t pay your monthly nut.
Why did I pack a Terrible Towel – an original, cotton fossil from 1978, when the Steelers had just three Super Bowl rings – to a party with other grown men who grew up with our beloved black & gold, only to sit in abject, brooding silence while the Jaguars tore us apart?
We won’t admit it, but the pain is part of it. Part of the paradox, where pain and pleasure are the twin-cogs in the sports experience. We watched these games with our dads, and then become our dads. The Saints used to be the Aints, a team playing before a freckling of fans, many wearing paper bags on their heads. Then they got really good, won a Super Bowl, and were perilously close to playing in another. Just 10 seconds away. Only to see those 61 yards gobbled up by the Vikings. And as great as the Vikings and their fans feel, they have been to four Super Bowls and lost them all. They are one win from playing the first home game in the Super Bowl. But the chances are they will either lose in Philadelphia, or at home, in February.
We won’t admit it, but after we gripe about the players and coaches who cost us a Super Bowl run this year, we will be back next year. The players change. The coaches change. The colors won’t. Neither will the pain, nor will our lifelong, masochistic need for more of it.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.