With only 17 seconds to play in sudden-death overtime last Sunday in the showdown between Minnesota and Green Bay for first place in the NFC's Central Division, Viking Quarterback Fran Tarkenton decided to run out the clock. Pay attention now, New York Giants. Tarkenton took the snap from center, gingerly lowered himself to the ground and ever so carefully cradled the ball against his belly. It was the work of an old master. Final score: Minnesota 10, Green Bay 10.
What's this? Fran Tarkenton, the most daring quarterback in the NFL, falling on the ball to protect a tie? Has senility finally weakened Tarkenton's powers of reason? Or was he simply fed up with trying to perform behind an injury-riddled offensive line that had left him open to attack all afternoon? Every time Tarkenton tried to pass on Sunday, he was chased from Oshkosh to Sobieski by the tough young Packer defensive ends, Mike Butler and Ezra Johnson.
There is little doubt that age has finally taken its toll of Francis Asbury Tarkenton. His legs now occasionally concede footraces to younger defensive linemen, and his arm barely has enough strength to throw a pass into a strong wind. But there is nothing wrong with Tarkenton's mind. The experience of his 38 years has taught Tarkenton that sometimes in the NFL a tie can be a win.
The 10-10 standoff at Green Bay's Lambeau Field left both the Vikings and the Packers at 7-5-1 with three games remaining. But the Vikings' 7-5-1 is better than the Packers' 7-5-1. Earlier this year Minnesota beat Green Bay 21-7, so in head-to-head competition, which is step No. 1 in the tie-breaking procedure to determine division champions, Minnesota has the edge over Green Bay. If the two teams are still tied after their final games of Dec. 17, Minnesota will go to the playoffs as the division champion for the sixth straight time and the 10th in the last 11 years. Fall on the ball for the Gipper, Francis.
Only six weeks ago it seemed that these same Vikings would be no-shows for the playoffs. When they tangled with the Packers the first time back in October, their record was a sad 3-4. They had become the first team to lose to both Tampa Bay and Seattle in the same season, and they trailed Green Bay—which was an astonishing 6-1 at the time—by three games. But Minnesota smacked the Pack that day, cutting Green Bay's lead to two games, and the Vikes went on to win three of their next four. They also became the only club to beat both of last year's Super Bowl contestants, Denver and Dallas, this season. Meanwhile, the Pack slid back, losing three of its next four while scoring just 29 points.
Thus the 7-5 records and the tie for first place as they squared off on Sunday. Curiously, Tarkenton and the Vikings spent most of the afternoon trying to develop a running game, something that had been nonexistent for Minnesota all season. The problem is not Minnesota's running backs—Chuck Foreman (when he is healthy; he has missed two games this season) and Rickey Young are just fine. The problem is the Vikings' inoffensive line, which was hurt by the early-season trade of All-Pro Guard Ed White, a contract holdout, to San Diego, and has since been ravaged by injuries. At times during Sunday's game the Vikings played with two rookies. Tackle Frank Myers and Guard Jim Hough, on the left side. Still, they stubbornly stuck to their ground game. With two minutes to play in regulation time, the Vikings had run the ball 35 times for only 82 yards. Tarkenton, who despite the fading skills is somehow having his best passing season, had thrown just 22 times, mostly in third-down-and-long situations forced by the Vikings' miserable running attack. Tarkenton also had been intercepted three times while completing just 10 passes for 76 yards. Not surprisingly, Minnesota trailed 10-3.
At that point it looked as though the game's only touchdown would be the one the Packers' Terdell Middleton had scored on a one-yard smash just before the end of the first half, giving Green Bay a 7-3 lead. Middleton, a second-year man from Memphis State, ran around, through and over the Vikings all afternoon, gaining 110 yards on 39 carries and surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Green Bay had another chance to score a touchdown on the first play of the final quarter, but on third-and-goal at the one, the Minnesota defense stiffened and threw Middleton for a one-yard loss. Instead, the Packers had to settle for a 19-yard Chester Marcol field goal and a 10-3 lead.
At the two-minute warning, Tarkenton decided to take matters into his own hands. Starting at his 43, he ignored his useless ground game and called 11 straight passes. Once Tarkenton was sacked by the ubiquitous Johnson for a five-yard loss, but twice he kept the drive moving with fourth-down completions. With 14 seconds to play, he sent the game into overtime on a five-yard lob to the left corner of the end zone that Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad plucked away from Packer Cornerback Mike McCoy.
Tarkenton having rediscovered the pass, Minnesota seemed poised to blast the Pack in sudden death. On the Vikings' second series in overtime, Tarkenton skillfully moved them 75 yards—56 through the air—to set up Rick Danmeier for a chip-shot field-goal attempt from the Green Bay 11 with four minutes to go. Danmeier missed.