Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Minnesota Vikings vs. San Francisco 49ers, NFC Playoff Game, January 9, 1988

Earlier this week, the Green Bay Packers came into the home stadium of the number one seed in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons, and beat them. Not only that, but the same thing happened in the AFC when the Jets beat the Patriots. Now, while the Jets beating the Patriots was kind of a big deal, I had a much more personal interest in the Falcons' loss over the Packers, as the Falcons have been my favorite team ever since I started watching football. As a Falcons fan, I'd be lying if I stated that I was totally shocked by the result, as rooting for a team that has had 12 winning seasons in its 45 year existence tends to make you expect the worst as a fan. But this was supposed to be different. After all, Matt Ryan had a 21-2 record in his career at the Georgia Dome, and the Falcons had beaten the Packers earlier in the season. But by now you probably know what happened, Aaron Rodgers played the best game of his life, the Falcons had no answers on defense and couldn't move the ball on offense, and the Packers were the team that advance to the NFC Championship Game.

So, you're probably wondering just what does all this have to do with a playoff game in 1987 (well, technically 1988, but it was during the 1987 season) between the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers. Well, just like the Falcons, the 49ers were the number one seed in the conference that year, finishing with a 13-2 record (the season was shortened a game due to a player strike) and seemed poised to make a run at the Super Bowl. Unlike the 2010 Packers, the 1987 Vikings were not expected to make a game out of this, as they finished 8-7 and were picked by hardly anyone to beat the mighty 49ers, especially considering that they were starting a backup quarterback in Wade Wilson. So what happened? Well for one Vikings wide receiver Anthony Carter had the best playoff game a wide receiver has ever had, and the great Joe Montana struggled with the wet field and the Vikings pass rush, and the upstart Vikings knocked San Francisco out of the playoffs with a 36-24 victory in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. A few notes about this game:

- This game had a few, though not many, similarities to the debacle that occurred in Atlanta on Saturday night. For one, neither the Vikings nor the Packers ran the ball particularly well in their respective games. The Vikings' leading rusher was Darrin Nelson, who ran for a mere 42 yards, and their only big run gain came from a 30-yard reverse to Carter. Meanwhile, the Packers ran for 96 yards on 31 carries Saturday. Another thing was that both the Packers' and Vikings' quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Wade Wilson, respectively, were able to use their speed and scrambling ability to constantly escape the pass rush to keep the play alive and make a play downfield (although Rodgers is a much better player than Wilson). Also, in the second quarter of each game, both losing quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Matt Ryan, through an ill-advised out pattern to the left side that was picked off by a cornerback (Reggie Rutland for the Vikings, Tremon Williams for the Packers) which resulted in both men racing down the sidelines and score back-breaking touchdowns that put the game out of reach.

- The Vikings gained 397 yards on offense, and Anthony Carter was responsible for 257 of them. Carter did his damage in a variety of ways, from catching short slant patterns and picking up a few extra yards after the catch, to his 30 yard run on a reverse, to two big time catches on deep balls thrown by Wilson. In the second quarter, Wilson threw a pass that was tipped by 49ers cornerback Don Griffin, only for Carter to snatch it out of the air and race downfield for a 63 yard gain before finally being knocked out of bounds. In the third corner, Carter made one of the best catches I've ever seen with a leaping, over-the-shoulder grab on a deep pass on the sideline over cornerback Tim McKyer, and then somehow keeping both feet in bounds despite McKyer hitting him while in mid air. While Carter did not score a touchdown in this game, it's safe to say that without him, the Vikings would have never scored a touchdown in this game, and Carter did all of this while a) playing on a soggy field on which his foe, 49ers WR Jerry Rice, struggled on all game, and b) with a myraid of injuries, including a sore shoulder and strained groin muscle. Carter's 227 yards set an NFL record for most receiving yards in a playoff game (that has since been broken), and his 257 yards from scrimmage remains the second highest total in playoff history.

- Meanwhile, the 49ers offense wasn't quite as sharp, as Joe Montana had an uncharacteristically bad game in the playoffs. A lot of the credit for that should go to the Vikings defense, as DE Chris Doleman hounded Montana all day and got 2 sacks on LT Bubba Paris. Also, Vikings cornerbacks Carl Lee, Issiac Holt, and Reggie Rutland did what seemed like the impossible and held Jerry Rice, who came into the game scoring a touchdown in each of his last 13 games, to 3 catches for 28 yards and no touchdowns. Things got so bad for Montana that Bill Walsh pulled him in the middle of the third period for Steve Young, a much quicker quarterback. Young played pretty well, leading the 49ers with 72 rushing yards and completing 12 of 17 passes, and after every big play made by Young, the cameras would cut to Montana on the sidelines with an annoyed look on his face. At the end, Walsh and Montana had an awkward conversation on the sideline with Montana seemingly wanting nothing to do with his coach at the time, which was fascinating to watch. Say what you will about Walsh having a quick trigger finger, but the offense wasn't doing anything under Montana, and sometimes a change at QB will give a team the spark it needs, so it was the right call, even if it was ultimately for naught.

- There were a couple of points where the 49ers could have changed the course of the game. The biggest one came on the final play of the first quarter with the score knotted at 3. Wilson dropped back to pass, and threw to WR Leo Lewis in double coverage. S Ronnie Lott cut in front of the receiver to pick off the ball and was stopped deep in Vikings territory. But DB Tory Nixon grabbed Lewis just before the pass got there and was called for pass interference. To make matters worse, the interference was totally unnecessary as Lott  would have picked the pass off even if Nixon hadn't laid a finger on Lewis. So instead of having the ball deep in their opponents territory, the 49ers allowed the first deep pass to Carter and eventually a touchdown pass to Carl Hilton. Also, the 49ers could have gone into halftime down by 7, but K Ray Wersching missed a 26 yard field goal at the end of the half, which certainly didn't help matters.

- Chuck Nelson, the Vikings kicker, came into the game with a 54 percent field goal success rate (13-24) and in 1987 was one out of eight of field goals past 40 yards, despite playing half his games in a climate controlled dome. In this game, the spirit of Lou Groza must have possessed Nelson, as he hit all five of his field goal attempts on a sloppy field, and two of those were past 40 yards, including a 47 yard kick in the wind that just got over the crossbar. The Vikings had some severe trouble in the red zone in this game, as they had no running game and would constantly get stuffed trying to run the ball in the end zone, so Nelson's contribution was quite important, and the Vikings may not of won had he not had the best game of his career that day.

So, what happened after the 49ers lost a game after being the number one seed. Well, they won the Super Bowl the next two seasons. The 1996 Broncos also repeated this feat after their shocking loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. So that's something for Falcons and Patriots fans to take comfort in. Of course, the 2008 Giants and Titans also lost in similar circumstances and haven't been back to the playoffs since, so you can never tell with these types of things. In this game, the 49ers had an off-day in every facet of the game and faced a wide receiver that had a career day. Stuff like that happens. If the two teams played 10 times, the 49ers would likely win seven or eight times out of 10. But in the playoffs, you only get one shot, and the Minnesota Vikings took advantage of their one chance by playing a great game. After this game, the Vikings came within a Darrell Green tipped pass from going to the Super Bowl, or at least to overtime in the NFC Championship Game, as they lost 17-10 to the Redskins when the game ended on a goal line stand. These two teams would meet again in the second round of the 1988 and 1989 playoffs, but the 49ers had the Vikings number each time. However, on this day, facing a team that coach Bill Walsh called his best team, the Vikings shocked the world, which goes to show that you never know what to expect in football.

Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts about this or other posts, or ideas for future posts, than let me know about them either by leaving a comment or by sending me an e-mail at kthec2001@gmail.com.

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