EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Thirty minutes after the Miracle in Minneapolis, Sam Bradford was still in his full Minnesota Vikings uniform Sunday night. Eyes wide open, Bradford wore a Cheshire cat grin as he emerged from a back room and joined his celebrating teammates in the home locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"Unbelievable," Bradford said as he walked by a reporter. "Unbelievable."
He was so right about the moment that had just transpired – a stunning 61-yard game-ending touchdown reception by Stefon Diggs that they'll replay in these parts long after we are all dead. The really funny thing, however, is that Bradford's one-word summation could also be used to describe what is about to take place Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. In fact, that might be even more unbelievable.
It would have been a great story if Bradford, the quarterback the Eagles traded to the Vikings to make room for Carson Wentz as the starter just days before the 2016 season, was coming to the Linc with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. It was a really good story when the two went against each other last year in the regular season.
But what we have now is so surreal that Hollywood would reject the script for being too unbelievable. Two years ago, the woebegone St. Louis Rams opened their season with Nick Foles as their starting quarterback and Case Keenum as their backup. Foles, a 2012 third-round pick by the Eagles, had been traded to the Rams for Bradford by former head coach Chip Kelly. Keenum was his backup after being reacquired by the Rams from the Houston Texans for a seventh-round pick.
The Rams had actually acquired Keenum off waivers in 2014, but then they cut him, put him on the practice squad, and watched him sign with the Texans again in December 2014. Keenum started the final two games for the Texans – won them both – and then landed back with the Rams in March of 2015.
Keenum, 29, had played his college football at the University of Houston, starting his career as a redshirt freshman while former Eagles second-round pick Kevin Kolb played his final season with the Cougars in 2006. Keenum ended up spending six seasons with the Cougars because he was granted a medical redshirt after playing in just three games in his fifth season. Unlike Kolb, Keenum went undrafted despite setting NCAA passing records for completions (1,546), yards (19,217) and touchdowns (155). Too small, some scouts said. Too much a byproduct of Houston's system, others worried.
Tony Levine, one of Keenum's head coaches in college, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune this earlier in the 2017 season as one of the best stories in the NFL got legs: "I can remember vividly an NFL scout telling me, 'If Case was two inches taller, he would be drafted in the first round.' And the other thing you always heard was, 'He's a system quarterback.' They tried to do everything they could to ignore the stats he had and the games he won."
Those scouts probably felt vindicated when Keenum went 0-8 as a starter with the Texans in his second NFL season, completing just 54.2 percent of his passes and posting a 78.2 passer rating.
Keenum's path crossed with Foles in 2015. Foles, after being shipped out by Kelly in return for Bradford, started 11 of the Rams' first 12 games, and by the time he was benched for Keenum in mid-December the mojo he had mustered during his 27-touchdown season in 2013 was a distant memory.
Keenum went 3-2 in his five starts, but he did not do nearly enough to keep a new Rams coaching regime from taking Jared Goff with the first overall pick in 2016 as the team moved to Los Angeles. Foles wanted out and we now know he contemplated retirement. Keenum kept plugging, opening 2016 as the Rams starter while Goff was groomed. Keenum had a job he knew he would not keep.
The Vikings signed Keenum for one year and $2 million in March. They wanted him to be Bradford's backup and he was on opening day and then again in Week 5 at Chicago. Bradford's surgically repaired left knee did not hold up. Keenum became the starter and the NFL story of the year.
The Vikings are 12-3 in his 15 starts, including the scintillating victory over New Orleans on Sunday. His work in relief of Bradford was also the reason the Vikings won the game at Chicago.
Keenum's 67.6 completion percentage was the second best in the league and his 98.3 passer rating ranked seventh. He threw 22 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. And now he is taking the Vikings into the Linc as the favorite against Foles and the Eagles.
"I know this is what all you guys predicted back in the day – a Foles vs. Keenum NFC championship," Keenum said Wednesday. "So good job to all of you guys who predicted that."
Keenum said he became close friends with Foles during their season together in St. Louis, a city where the fans no longer have a team and probably can't believe what has happened with their last two quarterbacks. Keenum said he has spoken with Foles this season.
"We talked and kept up," Keenum said. "We watch the same film and similar defenses that we have played. Nick is a great guy, one of my best friends. Great faith, great family. My wife and his wife are great friends. Great football player. Prepares well. Extremely talented, big arm, and he's really athletic, too. I know he's got a lot of confidence and I'm looking forward to playing against him."
Case Keenum vs. Nick Foles for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Sam Bradford must really think that's unbelievable.