Joe Namath is enshrined in Canton, Ohio, essentially because he famously foretold the 18-point upset that legitimized the American Football League in Super Bowl III.
A year later, on Jan. 11, 1970 — 50 years ago — NFL Films immortalized Chiefs coach Hank Stram, another Hall of Famer whose Super Bowl chances were far-fetched. As cameras rolled, the 12-point long shot cackled up and down the sideline mocking the Vikings for posterity while confirming the AFL’s equal standing alongside the NFL.
The leagues merged after that game. And ever since, coaches and players have relished being overlooked, underestimated and stamped with this most prized of motivational labels:
It’s a title so coveted that favorites have been known to fabricate it. Right, Kyle Shanahan?
“We both look at ourselves as underdogs,” the 49ers coach said Tuesday, referring to the Vikings four days before playing host to them in an NFC divisional playoff game.
Two days later, this West Coast spin was shared with Mike Zimmer, who was sitting on a couch outside the Vikings indoor practice field after his seven-point underdogs had just finished their last practice on a short week.
After he stopped laughing, the Vikings coach said, “They’re the No. 1 seed in the NFC!”
C’mon, Mike. Certainly, a Bill Parcells disciple such as yourself has tried to hoodwink a player or two into believing the whole-world-is-against-us battle cry even when it was, in fact, a bunch of malarkey.
“I think players are pretty smart,” Zimmer said. “If you’re a seven-point favorite and you’re 13-3 and the No. 1 seed, it’s pretty hard to say, ‘Man, people don’t think we’re any good.’ ”
That’s not a problem Zim is having with the whole world actually against him this postseason.
Last week, the Vikings and Titans dismissed Drew Brees and Tom Brady as home playoff favorites of 7½ and 5½ points, respectively. This week, the sixth-seeded Vikings (seven points), sixth-seeded Titans (9½) and fourth-seeded Texans (9½) are road underdogs of at least seven points.
“I think our team tends to respond to doubt,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It’s no different this week. … I’m sure it’s just going to be us believing that we can win. That’s the way we like it.”
Everything Rudolph just said became cliché long ago. The question is why handsomely paid pro athletes need to be disrespected to react with more focus and energy.
“If you can figure out how to give that [feeling] to all the guys every week, I’d love to know [how],” Rudolph said. “We’d all be rich and get guys to play well every week.”
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Since the merger in 1970, there have been 192 divisional playoff games. The road underdog has won 48 times (25%). Road underdogs of seven or more points have won 24 times (12.5%), including the Vikings’ 36-24 upset of the 49ers in January 1988 when the NFL’s Team of the 1980s was favored by 11.
The two No. 6 seeds to win a Super Bowl — the 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers — were divisional underdogs. The Steelers were 8½-point underdogs at Indianapolis, while the Packers were 1½-point underdogs at Atlanta.
“I think when you have a lot of competitors, they don’t like to be doubted,” Zimmer said. “They don’t like to be perceived as slighted. So it’s kind of a circle-the-wagons type of deal. The feeling last week was we had a good mind-set and we practiced really well.”
The oddsmakers weren’t the only ones causing the Vikings to circle the proverbial wagons last week. By Wednesday, the injury bug had wiped out their two slot corners, Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes.
“We had a good idea [safety Andrew] Sendejo was going to be [the nickel back] pretty early in the week,” Zimmer said. “But he got sick and missed a couple of days. So there were a lot of cram sessions going on before that game. And our guys just played good.”
Zimmer also was forced to deal with speculation via Pro Football Talk that Jerry Jones, his old boss in Dallas, would be interested if/when the Vikings got beat in the bayou and Zimmer got fired.
“Obviously, you hear the things,” Zimmer said Thursday. “I guess you deal with it and you move on. Something else comes up, you deal with it and you move on. I honestly felt during the game, it’s just normal. And during the week, it’s just, ‘How do we stop these guys and what do we have to do and how do we put our players in the best position to win?’ But, obviously, you hear all this stuff being said.”
Mark Wilf, Vikings co-owner and president, heard and responded, issuing a statement saying, “We value Mike and [General Manager Rick Spielman’s] leadership and we have every intent of Mike continuing as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Rick leading our football operations next year and beyond.”
Some latched on to the words “we have every intent” as ownership’s wiggle room. Zimmer said he didn’t take it that way.
“I think [ownership] kind of wanted to put it all to bed,” Zimmer said. “Because last year at this time, no one put [the rumors of his uncertain status] to bed.”
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The Vikings are 21-29 in 50 playoff games in their 59 seasons. They have won as underdogs seven times and lost as favorites eight times, including at Philadelphia when they were three-point favorites in the NFC Championship Game two years ago.
Saturday will be the Vikings’ 16th game as a road underdog of 6½ points or more. Sunday’s 26-20 overtime victory at New Orleans was their fourth victory in 15 tries.
They also won as an eight-point underdog at the Rams in a 1977 divisional game and as a 6½-point underdog in the wild-card game at New Orleans that preceded the upset of the 49ers in January 1988.
According to Jeff Diamond, assistant to then-Vikings GM Mike Lynn, 1987 was “a strange playoff year.” The Vikings squeaked into the playoffs with the NFC’s last seed mostly because Lynn was staunchly opposed to using replacement players during a player strike that ended up lasting three games.
“Mike was so sure that, first of all, the strike games weren’t going to happen,” Diamond said. “And, secondly, if they did happen, they weren’t going to count. But they happened and they counted.”
While many of his peers spent months preparing to assemble their replacement teams, Lynn winged it at the last moment, throwing together a team that turned a 2-0 start into a 2-3 hole.
“We ripped New Orleans [44-10] to open the playoffs, but then we go to the No. 1 seed, San Francisco, and it’s a different deal,” Diamond said. “They were 13-2. They had Joe Montana and Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh and Hall of Famers all over the place. But we dominated them that day.”
Anthony Carter and Wade Wilson outplayed Rice and Montana. And Chris Doleman, who chased Montana into being benched, was the best future Hall of Famer on the field that day.
“Having that underdog mentality, even though we knew we had a really good team, I think it did pay off that year,” Diamond said. “It’s kind of a strange phenomena in that sometimes it does work.”
During their 8-0 start this season, the 49ers were favored only two times. They were 5-0 when they played the Rams in Los Angeles as 8½-point underdogs.
“Our guys have felt like underdogs all year,” Shanahan said. “We still feel we have to prove a lot and have to earn everyone’s respect. That’s something that fires the players up.”
Zimmer laughed. “I don’t think it works that way,” he said.