LONDON – On Friday, Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks reflected on his first experience playing in London in 2017 and summed up British football fans this way.
“It’s just a bunch of NFL fans from all over the UK, which is really cool,” he said. “There’s a lot of jerseys, isn’t it [they’re] of the teams that play or not.”
Then, he added with a smile, “And everyone loves to watch the kicks.”
If that’s correct, the sell-out crowd that witnessed the NFL’s 100th international game on Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium got their money’s worth.
There were plenty of kicks in the Vikings’ 28-25 win over the Saints. There were long and short, questionable field goals that maybe didn’t need to happen and one that happened because a punt was faked. There was a missed extra point that kept the possibility of overtime in play.
And, in the end, this fantastic display of American football, in all its reckless glory, ended with a double doink.
The Vikings slipped out of London with a win after Wil Lutz’s 61-yard field goal – his second of 60-plus yards in the game’s final three minutes – hit the left upright, then the crossbar. The Saints celebrated first, thinking the kick went through to force overtime. The Vikings celebrated last when the ball hit the crossbar and fell short.
They went home with a 3-1 record, at the end of a day where seven of their 11 drives ended in points. It came up in the first quarter, and again in the second, as if the Vikings could pull away from a Saints team missing its starting quarterback, top running back, top receiver and starting left guard. Instead, what could have been a comfortable win turned into a thriller.
“It’s great to leave here with a win; a lot of people have worked hard this week to make sure we’re at our best,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “As far as the game itself, we don’t want to kick five field goals. We want to score touchdowns. I think more success in the red zone allowed us to pull back a little bit. That was a disappointment.”
A clinical first drive ended with Vikings tackle Christian Darrisaw flattening Saints linebacker Pete Werner while running back Alexander Mattison made the final move to turn a third-down tunnel screen into a touchdown at the Saints 15.
The Saints punted after a pair of penalties on their first drive; the Vikings hit a series of pass plays targeting the Saints’ linebackers, implementing a rushing offense that prevented New Orleans from punting.
But the Saints’ inside push produced a Kentavius Street sack that forced a Vikings punt, and after the Vikings’ defense forced another three-and-out, Cousins dropped back for a pass that would change the complexion of the game.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu carried Justin Jefferson’s route downfield before sitting on an outside route for tight end Irv Smith Jr. Mathieu picked off the pass, and the Saints put together a 60-yard touchdown drive to tie the score.
The Vikings would score on their final two possessions of the first half, but a conservative series of decisions by coach Kevin O’Connell kept them from the touchdowns that might have put the Saints on the edge.
After a third-and-1 pass went through the hands of Johnny Mundt at the Saints 10, O’Connell sent Joseph out for a 28-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth down. The kick made it 10-7, and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and pass rusher Za’Darius Smith combined for a touchdown that gave the Vikings another chance to score before halftime.
But when a Cousins-to-Jefferson connection went for no gain with 56 seconds left, O’Connell didn’t call the Vikings’ first timeout. The clock ticked down to 22 seconds before an incomplete pass on second down where Cousins was flushed from the pocket and hit in the face as he threw. Brian O’Neill was called for a false start on third-and-10, Cousins hit Smith for 7 yards with 16 seconds left, and the Vikings called their first timeout with three seconds to go, sending Joseph in for a field goal that made . it 13-7 at halftime.
The first drive of the Vikings of the second half reached the 6 of the Saints; O’Connell decided to send Joseph in for a field goal that made it 16-7. The margin was not large enough to prevent the Saints from taking the lead.
With Cameron Dantzler out of the game with an injury in the third quarter, Andy Dalton, starting in place of injured quarterback Jameis Winston, targeted rookie Akayleb Evans on a pass, hitting Marquez Callaway for 34 yards to the Vikings’ 8. Latavius Murray’s 1-yard touchdown run pulled the Saints within two points. Joseph’s fourth field goal of the day came after Ryan Wright hit Jalen Nailor for a first down on a fake punt, then the Saints ran six times on a 75-yard drive to take a 22-19 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings’ first touchdown of the second half came with the help of two crucial penalties: an illegal-hand-to-the-face call on Mathieu, and a 41-yard defensive pass interference penalty on cornerback Marshon Lattimore that put the Vikings on edge. the threshold of the Saints.
The Vikings took the lead on Jefferson’s first career rushing TD, but Joseph missed the extra point that would have put them up by four.
On the Saints’ next drive, Dantzler made a diving break on Dalton’s second-down deep ball to Chris Olave, knocking the pass away from the receiver with his outstretched hand.
“Loved it. Loved it,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “It was a great play in a key moment of the game: Face guarded him. He realized the ball was thrown over his shoulder. Came back, found the ball. Found it late, but had to fight the receiver to get the ball. ball by him. Incredible game.”
The Saints stalled at the Vikings 42 and Lutz tied the game with his 60-yarder, giving the Vikings the ball with 1:51 to go. Jefferson won the final play of his day’s duel with Lattimore, beating him from the line of scrimmage when Cousins made a perfect deep throw that put the Vikings on the Saints’ 29.
“Seeing that one-on-one matchup, we’ve been saying it all week: If we’re going to get it, we’re going to throw it deep,” Jefferson said. “It was a great play, great call, great throw by Kirk.”
Joseph hit from 47 to put the Vikings up 28-25 with 24 seconds to go. After Olave was ruled out on a throw from Dalton to try to get close to Lutz, the Saints sent their kicker out.
“When it left his foot, I thought it was going in,” O’Connell said. “Then on the first bounce I thought it was probably going in. Then, luckily, it didn’t.”
The Vikings are still perfect in London, the only team to win all three venues to host NFL games in this football-crazy city. And no matter how much to fix, the team that lost eight one-possession games a year ago is now 3-1 after back-to-back high-wire wins: one by last minute landingthe other with a last-second double-doink.