The Minnesota Vikings, playing with one ear cocked for reports from Chicago's Wrigley Field, won the Central Division championship of the National Football League with a workmanlike 24-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Franklin Field. The Green Bay Packers made the victory worthwhile by edging the Chicago Bears, with whom the Vikings had been tied for the division lead, hanging on while the Bears rallied desperately for 17 points in the fourth period to bring the score to 28-27.
Bill McGrane, the publicity director of the Vikings, established an open telephone to Green Bay Publicity Director Chuck Lane in the Wrigley Field press box and relayed the progress of the Packer-Bear game to the Viking coaches on the field. The Vikings, tied 7-7 at halftime, heard that Green Bay was leading Chicago 7-3 and returned to the field with fresh vigor. Early in the second half the violent Viking tacklers jarred the ball loose from the Eagles' Tom Woodeshick, and Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg recovered on the Philadelphia 40. The Viking offense, which had sputtered much of the first half, came to life with visions of Super Bowl dancing in their heads and converted the fumble into a touchdown in just five plays, giving them a lead they held for the rest of the game.
The scoring play was a 30-yard pass to End Gene Washington, who leaned out of the end zone, keeping his toes in bounds, to catch the ball behind Alvin Haymond, the Eagle defender, who had eased up on the play, thinking the ball was overthrown. Haymond protested so vigorously he was ejected.
For the rest of the game the Vikings contained the Eagles by virtue of the play of their front four, a group of angry men who rank among the best in the league. The Eagles got one more touchdown following a fumble recovery on the Viking 12-yard line, but the Vikings were never seriously threatened, despite the closeness of the score.
For the Bears, theirs was a bitter loss, one that had most of the team in tears after the game. They trailed Green Bay 28-10 as the fourth period began, but when Ronnie Bull slammed eight yards through the heart of the Packer defense to score, the Bears caught fire. They stopped Green Bay cold and got close enough to let Mac Percival kick a 26-yard field goal. That made it 28-20.
Again the aroused Bear defenders, led by Linebackers Dick Butkus and Doug Buffone, slammed the Green Bay offense back, and this time Concannon, firing one of his few accurate passes of the afternoon, hit End Dick Gordon on a deep crossing pattern behind Packer defender Doug Hart. Gordon sped 51 yards for a touchdown, which made the score 28-27 with 3:58 to go. Plenty of time.
Once more the Bear defense stopped Green Bay, and Chicago got the ball on its own 46-yard line with 2:36 left to win the Central Division title. They managed one first down, almost close enough for a field goal, but Ray Nitschke shut off their title drive with an interception, and that was it.
In Philadelphia, the Vikings listened to the end of the game in their dressing room, where Joe Kapp led the cheering for the Packers. At one point, as the Packers surged, Joe said, "Be Santa Claus, Packers, make us a present."
That the Packers did, but it is unlikely that the Vikings will be able to celebrate beyond this Sunday when they go to Baltimore for the Western Conference championship. The Colts are too strong for the courageous Vikings, both on offense and defense. Minnesota can stop the run but it is vulnerable to the pass, and Baltimore is the best-balanced club in football, able to run or pass and just as able to defend against either. The contest in Baltimore should go to the Colts in a canter.
The Eastern Conference championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland's vast and often frigid Municipal Stadium figures to be a much closer contest than the mismatch in Baltimore.