Championship Shortcomings: The 1987 Minnesota Vikings

1987 Minnesota Vikings

In 59 years of Minnesota Vikings football, the team has never hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end. Four times, the team has lost in the Super Bowl. Since their final appearance following the 1976 season, the Vikings have consistently fielded good teams. While none of these squads reached the big dance, six of these teams have reached the NFC Championship Game. For fans young and old, many of these losses haunt not only the fan base, but also reside in NFL lore. In this series, we will look back at each of these squads. Today, we look at the 1987 Minnesota Vikings, a middle-of-the-road team that almost made a Cinderella run to the Super Bowl.

Taking a Look at the 1987 Minnesota Vikings

Record: 8-7 (2nd in NFC Central)

Pro Bowlers

Wide Receiver Anthony Carter

Tight End Steve Jordan

Left Tackle Gary Zimmerman

Defensive End Chris Doleman

Linebacker Scott Studwell

Safety Joey Browner

The Strike

After the Vikings opened the season with victories over the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams, the NFL Players Association went on strike. From Weeks 3 through 5, only about 15 percent of players crossed picket lines to play. With “the scabs” playing, the Vikings would drop all three of their replacement games. The losses were even more painful as each loss was to an NFC Central Division opponent and the losses still counted. With a turnover margin of minus-seven, Minnesota suffered as badly as any team during the strike.

Bouncing Back

Following the strike, the Vikings came out hot. Beginning with a 34-27 Monday Night victory over the defending-AFC Champion Denver Broncos, Minnesota would win five of the next six games with their regular starters in. The offense eclipsed 300 yards in five of the six games and the defense forced a total of 17 turnovers during the six-game stretch. A thrilling 44-38 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Dallas Cowboys capped off the run, and the Vikings entered December with a 7-4 record.

A Disappointing December

The Vikings came back down to Earth in December, dropping three of their final four games of the season. After a field goal gave the Vikings a 24-20 lead in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, Minnesota allowed the Bears to score the final ten points of the game. A week later, the Vikings dropped their second game of the season to the Packers by a score of 16-10. And, in the season finale, the Washington Redskins erased a 24-14 deficit and ended up winning in overtime to drop the Vikings to an 8-7 record. A promising season appeared to have faded, and experts expected an early playoff exit for the purple.

The Playoff Party Crashers

Minnesota went to New Orleans as six-and-a-half point underdogs to the Saints. New Orleans jumped out to a 7-0 lead following a fumble on Minnesota’s opening drive. From there, though, the Vikings took over. After a field goal cut the game to 7-3, star receiver Anthony Carter returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown in what was an NFL postseason record at the time. Then, with the score 24-10 at the end of the first half, quarterback Wade Wilson launched a 44-yard Hail Mary that receiver Hassan Jones caught off of a deflection in the endzone to give the Vikings a 31-10 halftime lead. Minnesota never looked back and embarrassed the Saints 44-10.

A trip to San Fransisco the following week was a more daunting task, however. The Saints had a great 1987 regular season, but it was also the first time the franchise had ever had a winning season. The 49ers, on the other hand, had already won two Super Bowls in the 80s and came into the Divisional Round at 13-2 and were 11-point favorites. After the teams were at a 3-3 stalemate at the end of the first quarter, the Vikings seized a 13-3 lead. But it was a Najee Mustafaa (Reggie Rutland was his birth name and what fans will remember him by) who opened the flood gates on an upset, returning an interception off of Joe Montana 45 yards for a touchdown to give the Vikings a 20-3 halftime lead. When it was all said and done, Montana was benched for Steve Young as the Vikings pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL postseason history, defeating the 49ers 36-24. Anthony Carter put on a show, setting a postseason record with 227 receiving yards and adding a 30-yard carry as well. Kicker Chuck Nelson set a postseason record as well booting in five field goals on the day.

A Bittersweet Ending

Much like the regular-season finale, the Vikings gave the Redskins all that they could, but in the NFC Championship Game, they couldn’t pull through. Each team traded touchdowns in the first half and then field goals in the second half before Redskins quarterback Doug Williams found receiver Gary Clark for the go-ahead touchdown and a 17-10 lead. With five minutes left, Wade Wilson drove the Vikings deep into Redskins territory and the teams were on the verge of another overtime thriller. On fourth and four from the Washington six-yard line, Wilson dropped back, drifted to his left, and fired a laser at the one-yard line to running back Darrin Nelson. Nelson let the ball go right through his hands, and the Vikings season, as magical as it was, came to a crushing end.

How Badly Did This One Hurt?

The first team to find success following the retirement of head coach Bud Grant, the 1987 team is remembered as one of the all-time great Vikings teams. But despite their 8-7 regular-season record, the team proved they could play with anyone, and their two upsets were convincing. Even though they were road underdogs, this loss is up there with the most heart-wrenching in Vikings history because of how close they were to tying and winning this game at the end.

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