These are the high stakes Vikings QB Case Keenum is playing for this postseason

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

There are a lot of prayers in the NFL. Prayers of opportunity. Prayers of wins and losses. Prayers of stability or health.

Maybe most of all, prayers of contracts.

Case Keenum’s NFL career has unfolded inside all of these wishful appeals – wandering, hoping, clinging and waiting. Now the Minnesota Vikings quarterback stands at the edge of the biggest game of his career, with a concrete opportunity to fulfill them all. Without hyperbole, that’s what a win in the NFC title game in Philadelphia could deliver for a player on the cusp of 30, who stands ready to anchor himself as a long-term answer at the game’s most coveted position. That and … well … an explosion in pay far beyond his current $2 million salary.

Arguably not since Joe Flacco in the 2012 season’s playoffs has an NFL quarterback given himself a chance to make so much money in such a short span. That’s how wild one or two more wins could be for Keenum, potentially the difference between being seen as a short-term, $15 million bridge quarterback or a multi-year $20 million starter.

Case Keenum will lead the Vikings into their first NFC title game since 2010. (AP)

“Defying the odds,” Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said of Keenum.

“Outstanding at the quarterback position,” added Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

To be fair, those evaluations are Keenum’s bigger picture – not just Sunday’s 29-24 victory against the New Orleans Saints. As unforgettable as the game-winning 61-yard touchdown catch-and-run connection was between Keenum and wideout Stefon Diggs, the overall performance of Keenum was far from great. Gritty? Maybe. But it featured some bad decisions, including an interception on a back-footed throw that was one of his poorer passes of the season.

It’s also worth noting that Keenum’s last-second pass to Diggs was also remarkable in one way that has been almost completely overlooked: Even if it hadn’t gone for a touchdown, even if Diggs had managed to get out of bounds like the play was drawn up, Keenum’s completion alone would have left the Vikings with a field-goal attempt somewhere between 48 and 52 yards. That’s long, but it’s makeable.

When teams (and the Vikings) review tape on Keenum before his next deal is signed, a play like that speaks volumes. It showcases how Keenum has continued to defy those odds that Pederson is talking about. While he doesn’t have a cannon arm and he’s not 6-foot-4, he throws with touch and has the ability to put footballs into tight spaces. Not to mention his pocket navigation, which has bought time and extended plays all season long.

Is that enough to make him a $20 million quarterback for some team this offseason? That’s hard to say. But one thing isn’t: He’s facing a more uphill battle in free agency than he was before, with the three big underclassmen quarterbacks (USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen) all expected to join Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield as first-round prospects in the upcoming draft. While those names don’t take Keenum out of the running to be a prized free agent, it definitely puts other options on the market that could impact his value. Even with Keenum mastering a West Coast style offense that has been adapted to a multitude of quarterback-needy teams.

This brings the next two games back into focus for Keenum, with one cemented outcome: If he performs solidly on the road against a ferocious Eagles defense and wins the NFC title game, it’s a virtual lock the Vikings will either sign him to a long-term contract or apply the franchise tag to lock in one more “show me” season in 2018. Neither of those scenarios is insignificant. While the 2018 franchise tag for quarterbacks has yet to be calculated, it’s believed it will come in no less than $23 million. And a long-term deal? For Keenum, the $17 million to $20 million per season range isn’t out of question, although it’s debatable how much guaranteed money would be included in such a contract. It’s conceivable that Keenum could end up with $17 million to $20 million per season and a guaranteed portion somewhere in the neighborhood of the $37 million Brock Osweiler got from the Houston Texans in March of 2016.

To keep those numbers in perspective, consider that $17 million to $20 million average salary would put Keenum in the mix with guys like the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton ($16 million per), the Kansas City Chiefs’ Alex Smith ($17 million) and the Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill ($19.25 million). While Keenum has essentially only one full season on his resume as a starter, an argument could be made that he belongs in that group, particularly considering how he fits inside the Vikings’ scheme and the confidence he has earned with the coaching staff and locker room. If anything, Keenum has shown he can be a solid winner on a team built to run the football and dominate defensively.

There are other factors in play, of course. With the New York Giants expected to hire offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, it creates a two-fold problem for Keenum. It removes a pivotal coach from the Vikings staff who has shown a remarkable rhythm with his quarterback. Also, Shurmur’s departure was expected by many across the league to be a package deal involving Keenum. Hiring Shurmur could’ve placed a franchise at the highest priority level for Keenum if he reached free agency. But with the Giants expected to keep Eli Manning in the fold next season, it likely extinguishes any chance Keenum would follow Shurmur to New York.

That situation alone makes Keenum’s NFC title game performance – and possibly the Super Bowl after it – even more pivotal for his hopes of locking up a long-term starting job. If he hits a wall against the Eagles and loses, that will put a damper on contract talks. But if that happens and then he loses Shurmur on top of it, his path to a big deal becomes tougher. What Keenum needs is advocates inside the franchise beyond Shurmur. And the way to lock those in is to guide the Vikings into the Super Bowl. If he wants the big deal, he’s going to have to play over expectations from this point on. Maybe even far above them.

In a way, that’s what makes the Flacco circumstances of this offseason familiar to Keenum. In 2012, Flacco wanted a long-term deal but was forced by the team to play out his contract in hopes of proving he was worth a record-setting number. What resulted was a perfect storm. Flacco went on a magical run to a Super Bowl win and MVP honors in the title game, stringing together a four-game streak that saw him throw 11 touchdowns and no interceptions and boast a 117.2 passer rating. It also featured a game-tying 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 31 second left against the Denver Broncos, sending the game to overtime and an eventual Ravens win. That play lit a fire under Baltimore and created an uncanny momentum that delivered a title.

Keenum isn’t in that exact circumstance. Nobody is expecting him to notch anything record-setting with his next deal. But his prayers of opportunity and big wins and a contract are all coming together in the same space. In the next three weeks, he has the opportunity to win a pair of games that would define the Vikings franchise and cement Keenum as an unquestioned cornerstone.

Those kinds of players get life-altering contracts. And like so many other things that have gone Keenum’s way this season, that’s a thing worth praying for.

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