The Minnesota Vikings finally have figured out how to make this thing work. Set people up. Fool 'em. Bow your head, shuffle your feet, mumble something about what an honor it is to be in the playoffs. Then, wham! Come in with the sneaky right hand.
The Vikings did it again on Saturday. A week after routing the New Orleans Saints 44-10 in the NFC wild-card game, they knocked off another heavy favorite, the San Francisco 49ers, 36-24. Even after Minnesota buried the Saints, who had been a seven-point pick, the oddsmakers installed the Vikings as 11-point underdogs to San Francisco in Candlestick Park. And with good reason. The Niners finished the regular season by beating the Chicago Bears 41-0, Atlanta Falcons 35-7 and Los Angeles Rams 48-0. The 49er offense had averaged 406 yards a game. Their defense had given up 208 and hadn't allowed a touchdown in 13 quarters. Analysts offered pronouncements that began: "Every year there's a team that peaks at just the right time...."
O.K., the Vikings had sent shock waves through the league with their upset of New Orleans, but look what they were facing this time. Just six days to prepare for a hot team that had two weeks to get ready. An unsettled quarterback situation. Rain-soaked Candlestick grass to slow down their speedsters, wide receiver Anthony Carter and running back Darrin Nelson, who flash brightest on artificial turf.
So, of course the game wasn't close. It was over in a quarter and a half. Minnesota scored on three of its first four possessions. Then Viking rookie Reggie Rutland, a nickelback, intercepted a Joe Montana pass and ran it back 45 yards for a TD. That made the score 20-3 with 7:36 left in the first half, and that was it. Montana had completed only five of 12 throws for 58 yards. San Francisco flanker Jerry Rice, the league's premier receiver, had been shut out. Roger Craig, the Niners' Pro Bowl halfback, had picked up 17 yards.
When Montana peered downfield he saw a forest. The Vikings' coverage always seemed to be in the right place. Two men always seemed to be around Rice, who after having caught at least one touchdown pass in 13 straight games, finished with just three catches for 28 yards and no TDs. Even on a wet field, which is supposed to be fatal for a pass rush, the Minnesota front four was collapsing the pocket, forcing Montana to scramble and look for something to open up. It never did. There were no big plays off broken containment, no miracle catches or deft scampers. Nothing.
Finally, with 6:29 to go in the third quarter, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh did something he says he can't remember ever having done. He benched Montana. In his place Walsh brought in Steve Young. Except for Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, no NFL quarterback runs as well as Young. The score was 27-10 at this point, and for a while Young made things interesting—he rushed for a game-high 72 yards and scored on a five-yard run—but the 49ers had too much ground to make up.
San Francisco had one small excuse—Rice's legs weren't right. He said that during the long layoff before this game he had pushed himself too hard in practice and strained a hamstring. The zip just wasn't there, he said. Fine, but where was the rest of the offense?
And the Niners still couldn't figure out how to stop the Vikings' attack. Quarterback Wade Wilson picked them to pieces on underneath stuff—he completed 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards—and when he needed something deep, there was Carter, who, remember, wasn't supposed to be effective on the soggy field. Carter finished with 10 catches for a playoff-record 227 yards.
Minnesota is loaded with high-performance people, including Carter, defensive tackle Keith Millard, All-Pro strong safety Joey Browner and All-Pro offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman. But for most of the season the Vikings were mostly known for their epidemic of DWIs—seven arrests in 14 months—and their ongoing quarterback drama.
In an August exhibition game against the New England Patriots, Tommy Kramer, who was last season's NFC Pro Bowl quarterback, decided to cut back into traffic to add another few yards to a scramble. When he regained consciousness, he found he was having trouble feeling anything in his right arm and hand. Nerve damage in the neck was the diagnosis. Two months later he still hadn't seen any action. Any hope of returning to the Pro Bowl was shot. By then it was a question of survival.