Twelve or so hours later and I still don’t know what happened. I don’t know what Marcus Williams was thinking when he went low, and also a little sideways, and ended up missing Stefon Diggs altogether and instead taking out his own teammate, allowing Diggs to float unthreatened down the field for one of the most improbable wins in NFL history.
I’ve watched every word of what Williams said at his locker, and while he says what he should have done, he doesn’t explain what he did do or why he did it. I suspect this is because he doesn’t himself know—decisions like that take place in some unconscious span of microseconds where only the base lizard brain and muscle memory can operate. I feel awful for the rookie safety, who was so good all game and all season, but I just want to understand, and I think I never will.
Watching it is no help. And I’ve watched it dozens of times, and will watch it dozens more today, because it’s glorious:
(Joe Buck was very very good on that call, with an unusual-for-him immodulation of his voice. But sometimes you just want to hear the homer call.)
I know what happened on every part of the play besides Williams’s decision-making. I know the play was “Buffalo right, Seven Heaven”—with “Buffalo” signifying a bunch formation, three receivers lined up to the right, and “Seven” indicating a corner route. I know the Vikings had run the play constantly in practice this season, and even a couple times during this game, but according to WR Jarius Wright, who had the best view of the whole thing, Diggs had never, ever come down with the ball before.
I know that everyone knew the most important thing was to get out of bounds to stop the clock and set up a long field goal. As soon as Diggs landed, Case Keenum yelled “Get out of bounds!” So did coach Mike Zimmer, who was close enough for Diggs to have heard him.
I’m utterly amazed that Diggs had the presence of mind not to do what he had prepared to do and what everyone was yelling at him to do. That sort of body control and instant information-processing are what make pro athletes sometimes seem like a different species from us altogether.
“I took a picture before I turned around to catch the ball,” Diggs said. “There was only one guy there. If he slipped, I’m going to try to stay up.”
Diggs says he was waiting to be hit, and then he “felt”—rather than “saw”—Williams go past him, and had to immediately abandon his plan to lunge for the sideline and instead turn upfield.
I now know that this was the first time in NFL history that a playoff game ended on a game-winning touchdown as time expired, a fact that seems unbelievable when you first hear it, but less so when you consider everything that had to happen to make it happen here.
But I still can’t grasp this:
Williams had a lot to process. He could have tried to contest the catch, but an incompletion would have given the Vikings one more chance. He could have forced Diggs to the sideline, but that would have stopped the clock for a chance at a 51-yard field goal to win. He could—should—have hit Diggs as soon as the ball arrived, but he didn’t want to hit him early and draw a pass interference penalty.
Sean Payton surmised it was “a timing decision,” and it looks like Williams threw himself off-balance by pulling up short of the airborne Diggs. But Williams’s timing was perfect to throw himself into Diggs’s legs and upend him in bounds and end the game and send New Orleans to the NFC Championship. Williams believed he should have leaped instead of going low, which doesn’t explain why he went low in the first place. Here’s what he said:
“It was just my play to make. The ball was in the air; I didn’t go attack it,” Williams said. “I’ve just got to be that guy, go up and get the ball. As the safety back there, you’ve got to be the eraser. That was my job. The last play of the game, you’ve got to go do it, and you’ve got to save the game.”
“I feel like I was a little early, but at that point, I’ve just got to make the tackle when he comes down. It’s just those little things that you see, and you’ve got to make sure you do all that you can to get him down, regardless of if there were 10 seconds left. I knew the situation. You’ve just got to make sure you make the play.”
“I’m going to take it upon myself to do all that I can to never let that happen again,” he said. “If it happens again, then I shouldn’t be playing.”
“The play happened how it happened. You all saw it.”
I still don’t understand. So maybe that last part is all there is to say.