Someday, when all their potential stars fulfill themselves and all the annual preseason hopes work out for them, the Minnesota Vikings will win a football championship. That day won't come this year, because the club already has lost four games and tied one; it may not come for quite a while, because the Vikings have a frustrating habit of dropping important games just when they seem to be at their best. But when it does come, it isn't likely that the players will be any more jubilant than they were last Sunday night after their 20-17 upset of the Green Bay Packers.
In one of the biggest and best games of any year the Vikings threw the NFL's Western race back into its customary state of confusion. If anyone thought there would be a Packer runaway, he was wrong. With the Baltimore Colts' emphatic 37-10 defeat of the Washington Redskins, the Colts and Packers were virtually tied. Leading by only half a game, the Packers have a bye this Sunday while the Colts draw the winless Atlanta Falcons, and what is a tie in speculation now should be that in fact by sundown Sunday. The Dec. 10 showdown between the Packers and Colts becomes, in prospect, the game of the year.
Sunday's desperate battle was the upset of upsets on a day in which the bizarre was ordinary, as Dallas fell before Philadelphia, Cleveland succumbed to Pittsburgh, St. Louis squeezed past the invalids of New York by only three points and, in the AFL, the Denver Broncos—glue-factory nags so far this season—defeated Boston, the Eastern leader, with a touchdown pass in the last two seconds of a rainwashed debacle.
But to none of the winners was victory sweeter than to the Vikings. In the locker room afterward, Lonnie Warwick, the middle linebacker, played a triumphant flourish on his wooden duck-calling horn, as the others cheered. Carl Eller and Jim Marshall, the defensive ends, kept slapping one another on the back and yelling about the "new" Viking defense. "It's pride," said Marshall, the defensive captain. "It's a brand new feeling of pride. We know we can win now, and we're just going to keep proving it."
"The team has jelled," said Fran Tarkenton, who performed sensationally for the fourth straight game at quarterback. "I think we're playing the best football of any Viking team ever."
"We've arrived," Norm Van Brocklin beamed. "This was by far my biggest win as a coach. Now we've shown that we can play with the big kids." The Packers, the biggest kids of all, had defeated them in nine of 10 meetings since the Minnesota club was formed. And the champions were beaten with the very weapons that Vince Lombardi himself has always employed. The Vikings controlled the ball, they blocked brilliantly and they made the big play whenever they had to.
You remember the old Vikings—the scrambling, high-scoring, exciting Vikings, who seemed to win or lose all their games by scores like 42-41; the unpredictable club that employed few fundamentals and almost no defense; the perennial spoilers, who invariably made enough mistakes to keep them from contending for the title.
Well, a lot has happened to that old team. Van Brocklin, who quit in a rage for 24 hours when his players failed him last year, now takes his four-defeat record philosophically and claims, "We can still have a hell of a good year." The defense, described by the coach as "a punching bag for the last five years," is now a tough and effective unit. The offensive line, which originally let all those rushers through so Tarkenton could gain his reputation as a scrambler, was strong enough Sunday to master even the fearsome defenders of Green Bay.
Only Tarkenton himself has not changed his style. He's still scrambling out of the pocket, running for yardage or finding receivers at the last moment—and he's doing it better than ever. During the first four games this year—three losses and a tie—Tarkenton had trouble. "I wasn't throwing away games," he said. "I didn't feel the losses were all my fault. But I just wasn't doing enough for the team—didn't make enough positive contributions. So I decided to take more chances and do more scrambling."
Since he made that decision, Tarkenton has completed better than 70% of his passes for an even 1,000 yards, and he's run for 142 more yards. His statistics Sunday were not his best of the year—16 completions in 26 tries for 164 yards—but it may well have been his finest game. The Vikings were not making large gains, and they were often faced with third-down situations on which they had to get important yards or lose the ball. Nineteen times this big third-down play came up for the Vikings, and 14 times they made it.