Twin Cities. Twin records. Twin miseries.
The Chargers and Minnesota Vikings — winless cousins, if you will — were careening toward irrelevance, looking to pump the brakes on a season already spinning out of control.
“I didn’t really know the statistics of it until we became 0-2 and guys started talking about, `Well, if you go 0-3, I don’t think a team’s made the playoffs since … I don’t know,’” Chargers receiver Keenan Allen said.
As much as he could Sunday, Allen took matters into his own hands.
Although he never reached the end zone, he caught a franchise-record 18 passes for 215 yards, and threw a 49-yard touchdown pass, to help the Chargers to a 28-24 victory that averted a forehead-slapping failure.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley called Allen’s effort a “maestro performance” and said, “When your best players play like that in a big game, it gives you a chance.”
Harry Houdini had a history in this city. Back in 1899, the legendary escape artist wriggled his way out of a straitjacket while dangling upside down, 45 feet above 4th Street.
Sunday, Allen was the Chargers’ Houdini — with the help of quarterback Justin Herbert, who completed 40 of 47 passes for 405 yards with three touchdowns.
Good fortune factored into the finish. Midway through the fourth quarter, with his team trailing by three, Herbert underthrew Joshua Palmer in the front corner of the end zone. Minnesota‘s Akayleb Evans leaped to make an interception at the eight, but the ball caromed off his hands and helmet, and into the grasp of a backward-falling Palmer, who tumbled in for the touchdown.
“Justin trusted me and threw it up, and I just came down with it,” said Palmer, making the wild play sound far more routine than it actually was. “It was a pretty circus play but I had to come down with it. I had no choice.”
That gave the Chargers a 28-24 lead, but it wasn’t the last fateful ricochet.
After the Chargers came up short on a fourth-and-one run from their 24 with 1:51 to play — an audacious gamble by Staley — the Vikings were within point-blank range of victory. But with 12 seconds remaining, Kirk Cousins’ pass for tight end T.J. Hockenson was intercepted in the end zone.
Linebacker Kenneth Murray made the pick, but only after the ball bounced through a pachinko machine of hands, those of defenders Nick Nieman and JT Woods.
When the Chargers, who were protecting a four-point lead, were stuffed on fourth down deep in their territory, the volume in this purple palace almost lifted the roof off U.S. Bank Stadium.
“That was the big thing for us, to make sure we were taking the air out of the stadium,” said Chargers tight end Donald Parham Jr., who caught a career-high two touchdown passes. “Then that happened and it was like, dang. But we got back on track.”
Chargers receiver Mike Williams, the recipient of that touchdown pass from Allen, left the game with an undisclosed leg injury in the second half. That further sharpened the laser focus on Allen, who consistently beat his coverage, including a 20-yard catch on third-and-17 to keep a touchdown drive alive.
Everyone knew where the ball was going, yet time and again, Allen came down with it.
“Defenses are defenses, bro,” he said. “Everybody still can know where the ball is going, but somebody’s got to make the play. You can point at it. You can say, `He’s going here.’ But you’ve got to go stop it.”
As for his touchdown pass, it was Allen’s first completion of his impressive career (not counting conversion passes) and it was pristine. Herbert threw a backward pass to put the ball in his hands, and Allen made a connection with Williams down the sideline, even freezing the safety with a hint of a pump to Palmer, who likewise was running wide open down the middle of the field.
The touchdown was atonement for Allen, who earlier in his career missed on the identical trick play.
“I kind of messed it up two years ago,” he said. “We played the [Kansas City] Chiefs. Same play. Mike was open and I kind of threw it short, at his feet. He couldn’t make the play. I had to get him back.”
Now, the onetime twins are separated. The hopes of the Vikings are as fleeting and ethereal as the snowflake-like soap bubbles that float down from the ceiling of the stadium before kickoff, giving the place a winter wonderland effect.
The Chargers have a heartbeat, albeit a faint one. They started last season 1-2 but wound up making the playoffs, although that ended with an epic meltdown in a wild-card game at Jacksonville.
But a step forward is a step forward. And no matter how it happened on this day, they came away with a little Minnesota miracle of their own.
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