The Minnesota Vikings finally have figured out how to make this thing work. Set people up. Fool 'em. Bow your head, shuffle your feet, mumble something about what an honor it is to be in the playoffs. Then, wham! Come in with the sneaky right hand.
The Vikings did it again on Saturday. A week after routing the New Orleans Saints 44-10 in the NFC wild-card game, they knocked off another heavy favorite, the San Francisco 49ers, 36-24. Even after Minnesota buried the Saints, who had been a seven-point pick, the oddsmakers installed the Vikings as 11-point underdogs to San Francisco in Candlestick Park. And with good reason. The Niners finished the regular season by beating the Chicago Bears 41-0, Atlanta Falcons 35-7 and Los Angeles Rams 48-0. The 49er offense had averaged 406 yards a game. Their defense had given up 208 and hadn't allowed a touchdown in 13 quarters. Analysts offered pronouncements that began: "Every year there's a team that peaks at just the right time...."
O.K., the Vikings had sent shock waves through the league with their upset of New Orleans, but look what they were facing this time. Just six days to prepare for a hot team that had two weeks to get ready. An unsettled quarterback situation. Rain-soaked Candlestick grass to slow down their speedsters, wide receiver Anthony Carter and running back Darrin Nelson, who flash brightest on artificial turf.
So, of course the game wasn't close. It was over in a quarter and a half. Minnesota scored on three of its first four possessions. Then Viking rookie Reggie Rutland, a nickelback, intercepted a Joe Montana pass and ran it back 45 yards for a TD. That made the score 20-3 with 7:36 left in the first half, and that was it. Montana had completed only five of 12 throws for 58 yards. San Francisco flanker Jerry Rice, the league's premier receiver, had been shut out. Roger Craig, the Niners' Pro Bowl halfback, had picked up 17 yards.
When Montana peered downfield he saw a forest. The Vikings' coverage always seemed to be in the right place. Two men always seemed to be around Rice, who after having caught at least one touchdown pass in 13 straight games, finished with just three catches for 28 yards and no TDs. Even on a wet field, which is supposed to be fatal for a pass rush, the Minnesota front four was collapsing the pocket, forcing Montana to scramble and look for something to open up. It never did. There were no big plays off broken containment, no miracle catches or deft scampers. Nothing.
Finally, with 6:29 to go in the third quarter, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh did something he says he can't remember ever having done. He benched Montana. In his place Walsh brought in Steve Young. Except for Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, no NFL quarterback runs as well as Young. The score was 27-10 at this point, and for a while Young made things interesting—he rushed for a game-high 72 yards and scored on a five-yard run—but the 49ers had too much ground to make up.
San Francisco had one small excuse—Rice's legs weren't right. He said that during the long layoff before this game he had pushed himself too hard in practice and strained a hamstring. The zip just wasn't there, he said. Fine, but where was the rest of the offense?
And the Niners still couldn't figure out how to stop the Vikings' attack. Quarterback Wade Wilson picked them to pieces on underneath stuff—he completed 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards—and when he needed something deep, there was Carter, who, remember, wasn't supposed to be effective on the soggy field. Carter finished with 10 catches for a playoff-record 227 yards.
Minnesota is loaded with high-performance people, including Carter, defensive tackle Keith Millard, All-Pro strong safety Joey Browner and All-Pro offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman. But for most of the season the Vikings were mostly known for their epidemic of DWIs—seven arrests in 14 months—and their ongoing quarterback drama.
In an August exhibition game against the New England Patriots, Tommy Kramer, who was last season's NFC Pro Bowl quarterback, decided to cut back into traffic to add another few yards to a scramble. When he regained consciousness, he found he was having trouble feeling anything in his right arm and hand. Nerve damage in the neck was the diagnosis. Two months later he still hadn't seen any action. Any hope of returning to the Pro Bowl was shot. By then it was a question of survival.
Kramer had been replaced by Wilson, who, throughout his seven-year NFL career, had been Kramer's spear carrier. Going into this season, Wilson had gotten 10 pro starts, all of them the result of Kramer injuries. Kramer knee; Wilson starts. Kramer shoulder; Wilson starts. And so on. Good long-ball thrower, given to occasional streaks of wildness. Terrific scrambler whose feats afoot are often overlooked. That's the book on Wilson.
Kramer came back against the Los Angeles Raiders on Nov. 8, and that began a strange period during which he started five games but failed to finish any of them. The same thing happened against the Saints two weeks ago...now pitching in relief of Kramer, Wilson. Minnesota coach Jerry Burns has always been a solid Kramer man. This season, though, he was one of the few people on the Vikings who didn't believe that Wilson could do a better job than Kramer. Finally, on Friday, he announced that Wilson would start.
Late in the game CBS had a memorable sideline shot of Walsh, his arm around Montana, watching the season slip away. Meanwhile, across the field, a media star was being born. Bald, craggy-faced and raspy-voiced, Floyd Peters, the Vikings' defensive coordinator, will never be called upon to do any deodorant commercials. But after Saturday's game, Peters was the hero of Candlestick Park. The word "genius" was thrown around a lot in referring to him.
"Variety of looks in our coverage," said Peters. "Some man coverage on the big guy [Rice] with a zone underneath [a gridiron version of basketball's box-and-one]. Roll the zone to the strong side, then change up when they catch on. Guess with them, be deep conscious when they run play-action. Montana's great at throwing deep off play-action."
"An excellent scheme," Walsh said. "They didn't take us real tight. They kind of sloughed off along the way." He waved his hand in front of his face, as if trying to wave away a bitter memory. "Our receivers weren't getting clean. It was kind of murky downfield...that and the pressure on Montana...well, it was time to go with a quarterback who was faster than Joe."
When someone asked Walsh to comment on the decision to yank a future Hall of Fame quarterback, he sounded like a general who had just sacrificed his favorite platoon to try to win a battle. "I told him I didn't like doing it," he said. "I have great regard for him as a football player, but I had to change the chemistry, make a move. I couldn't afford sentiment at that time."
During the week Montana had said a strange thing. He had hinted that his playing days might be numbered, that he had been put on a retirement timetable. "I'd even seen it before the back surgery [last season]," he told the San Francisco Chronicle's Lowell Cohn. "Bill was always bringing in someone. It was [Matt] Cavanaugh and Kemper [Jeff Kemp], and now Steve [Young]. I know there's a time when Bill's going to make a move. All I can do is try to keep the clock turning backward."
After the game someone asked Walsh about Montana's status, and for the first time he showed a little annoyance. The actual question was: "Could it be that Montana's no longer quick enough?"
"Joe made All-Pro," replied Walsh. "He led the league in passing. There were some poor game conditions today. The receivers weren't getting free. There was a big push from the pressure. Not quick enough? No. Look, when you're 13-3, you don't want to start taking the parts out of the machine."
Especially when the other team played as well as the Vikings did. In particular, for the second straight week, their front four was outstanding. Millard and end Chris Doleman, an exceptional pair of pass rushers, applied the most pressure. Earlier in the week Doleman had mentioned that his 262 pounds of quickness would be too much for the man he would face, 306-pound Bubba Paris, which is no-no talk before a big game. But Doleman got two sacks, both times beating Paris on inside moves. That was another wrinkle Peters inserted into the game plan.
Doleman had gained a reputation this season as a wicked outside rusher. To contain him, the 49ers devised a strategy that called for 232-pound fullback Tom Rathman to line up wide, go in motion and then crack back on Doleman. It was similar to the tactic they used last year to wipe out Washington Redskins end Dexter Manley with tight end Russ Francis. Doleman, however, crossed up the Niners by lining up head-on against Paris and then power-rushing inside. "I think it caught him by surprise," he said.
The Vikings, who finished the regular season with an unimpressive 8-7 record, are lucky even to be in the playoffs. And this week they play their third consecutive postseason game on the road. But the Redskins pose no mystery for them. They had Washington whipped in the season finale, only to lose on a defensive collapse at the end. Minnesota is no longer in the collapsing business.
PETER READ MILLER
Hassan Jones's five-yard TD catch in the third quarter put the Vikings up 27-10.
By the time the Vikings front four was done, Montana's name was mud. His number, too.
PETER READ MILLER
Vikings Issiac Holt (30) and Neal Guggemos each had a big hand in restraining Rice.
Carter got 40 of his playoff-record 227 receiving yards with this soaring catch.
In returning an interception 45 yards for a touchdown, Rutland did Peters (right) proud.
[See caption above.]
"Carter wasn't supposed to be effective on the soggy field. He had 10 receptions."