ON SATURDAY A BATTLE, ON SUNDAY A BREEZE
The Minnesota Vikings did it the hard way and the Cleveland Browns had a laugher, but it would be difficult to say which team was the more impressive in the NFL conference championship games last weekend—the Vikings in a hard-bitten, almost brutal 23-20 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams in Bloomington, Minn., or the Browns in a ludicrously easy 38-14 victory over the inept Dallas Cowboys in Dallas. The Western Conference showdown was a tense, exciting game, but in the Eastern playoff the Browns lost little time in establishing their mastery of Dallas. After the first half, the only question in the minds of 69,321 booing fans in the Cotton Bowl was when would Coach Tom Landry give up on Craig Morton and try Roger Staubach? Near the end of the second half the question became can a Cowboy kicker miss the ball twice?
On Saturday, on a snow-bordered field, the Vikings, behind 17-7 after a jittery first half, regained their cool to achieve the biggest win in their nine-year history. The ground for this triumph was plowed a year ago when Minnesota lost the Western Conference title to the Colts in Baltimore 24-14. On the flight back to Minneapolis, Coach Bud Grant told Bill McGrane, the club's publicity director, "They don't realize it yet, but the players learned something today. They found out that they're good enough to win a game like this. It'll take a while to sink in, but if we get this far next year they'll go into this game expecting to win it, not wondering if they can."
Against Los Angeles the Vikings needed all the confidence they could muster. The Rams dominated the first half, moving surely and steadily each time they had the ball and gaining so consistently that never once did they have to punt.
Tackle Alan Page, whose interception of a Roman Gabriel pass with 39 seconds to play snuffed out whatever hopes the Rams had of winning, felt the Vikings were too tight in the beginning. "All week we've been keyed up and tense and we talked about it," he said. "We tried to gear down, but we couldn't. That hurt us in the first half. Especially after I jumped offside and cost us a touchdown."
This mishap occurred on the Rams' first play from scrimmage following the recovery of a Bill Brown fumble on the Minnesota 45-yard line. Page, beating the snap, bowled past the startled blockers and was about to tackle Gabriel when the Ram quarterback tossed a soft pass right into the arms of Viking Carl Eller, who ran 46 yards for what would have been a touchdown had Page not been offside. Of course, Gabriel might not have thrown the interception if Page had not been after him.
"It took us a long time to get over that," said Wally Hilgenberg, one of the Minnesota linebackers. "We were jumpy all through the first half, and Gabriel was calling a great game. We didn't really come out of it until the third period."
The Rams' halftime lead was due mainly to their ability to run against the Vikings' storied defense, a success that came as no surprise to the Rams. Charlie Cowan, who with Bob Brown gives Los Angeles possibly the best pair of offensive tackles in the NFL, said, "Against a line as aggressive as Minnesota's, we figured we could run. And we did."
After Eller's interception had been nullified, the Rams moved for their first score. Larry Smith went through the strong side of the line for five yards behind a trap block, with Bob Brown taking care of Middle Linebacker Lonnie Warwick. Then Gabriel threw a quick pass to Wendell Tucker, one that was to be indicative of the Ram aerial game. It was thrown before the Viking rush could break through. Thirteen of Gabriel's 22 completions were sharp, sudden flips to his running backs.
After Tucker's catch, Smith gained nine more yards on the strong-side run, then added five two plays later. Gabriel got the touchdown from the three by rolling out to his left after faking a handoff and passing to Bob Klein, one of the two tight ends they use when close to the goal.