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The Los Angeles Rams found a new way to stay out of the Super Bowl last Sunday: they committed suicide on the Minnesota tundra. Early in the NFC championship game the Rams allowed the Vikings to score 10 points despite gaining zero yards, and the Rams never recovered. The result was a 24-13 Minnesota victory without any appreciable heroics from Fran Tarkenton and none at all from Sammie White, the rookie receiver who usually wins games for the Vikings by gathering in bushels of Tarkenton passes. Actually, the Vikings won it with their finely developed art of kick blocking. One might even say, "Led by the Rams' Tom Dempsey and Rusty Jackson, the Minnesota Vikings traveled 1,600 miles to Pasadena last week." But Nate Allen's name ought to be in there somewhere, too.
Allen is the Viking gnat who habitually flutters into the way of opposing placekickers and makes the football ricochet someplace other than between the goalposts. He did it two or three times during the regular season (depending on whether you accept the official or the unofficial statistics). And he did it again out there Sunday in front of 47,191 delirious sleeping bags in 12� Metropolitan Stadium. This one was the biggest kick block of his life.
The scoring in pro football games generally features spiraling passes from quarterbacks like Tarkenton to smooth-gaited receivers like White, but Allen won the game over the Rams as surely as Bud Grant is a duck hunter. He did it just when the Vikings were reeling back on their own one-inch line in the first quarter, shoved up against their funny old end-zone bleachers by the Rams. After a 54-yard drive, the visitors were lined up and ready to get at least three points for their efforts.
Suddenly, it wasn't a Los Angeles field goal at all, it was a 7-0 Minnesota lead. The center's snap to the Ram holder, Steve Preece, was true enough, and Tom Dempsey's leg did reach the ball. The thing was, Dempsey's leg got there at the same time as a purple-shirted blaze wearing No. 25.
From the Rams' point of view, it wasn't so terrible that Allen blocked Dempsey's attempt. The Cowboys had blocked a couple of boots against Los Angeles the week before and no absolute catastrophes occurred. It was what happened to the ball after Allen blocked it that was so terrible. What happened was that Allen deflected a bounce pass over to Bobby Bryant on a fast break. Bryant, who lived near the football throughout the afternoon, was fortunate enough to have the ball careen directly into his hands at the 10-yard line, whereupon he set out on a 90-yard journey for the Viking touchdown that changed the whole day.
"It's my job not to rush the kicker but head off to the side and wait for just that kind of a bounce in case it's blocked," Bryant said. "It had never worked quite that well before."
Enter now the old study of game films, which is what assistant coaches do in their spare time. The Viking staff had noticed something in poring over Ram films. In the language of pro football, a "wing man" is a blocker who is supposed to protect a placekicker against the rush from the outside. The Rams' wing man in this case was Jim Youngblood, who normally is paid to be a linebacker.
Listen to Nate Allen. "We noticed in the films that Youngblood was setting up too deep to the inside, almost behind his end," he said. "In that position, it seemed to us that he couldn't protect against both Wally Hilgenberg and me. Hilgenberg got good penetration to the inside and I was never touched."
Dempsey's kick struck Allen in the chest and bounded over to where Bryant had been waiting for perhaps all of the eight years he has played for the Vikings. After that, the next 90 yards were a breeze. To complete Bryant's joyous afternoon, he intercepted two of Ram Quarterback Pat Haden's passes.
Allen's very presence no doubt also had something to do with further misfortune that befell the Rams in the second quarter. This time L.A.'s rookie punter, Rusty Jackson, handled a good snap near his goal line as if it were a steaming platter of cookies, his mind almost certainly being more than a little concerned with whether one of his teammates was going to remember to get in Allen's way. Jackson dropped the ball, then picked it up just in time to boot it into the hip of the Vikings' Matt Blair. The blocked punt gave Minnesota the football at the Los Angeles eight. That the Vikings could get only three points—on a Fred Cox field goal—was the first real indication that this wasn't going to be one of Tarkenton's better days. Then again, it didn't have to be.