The coincidence of similarity between the Vikings’ playoff path this year and 32 years ago in 1987 has been noted in the past couple weeks — and with increasing frequency in the last few days since the Vikings sprung an upset on New Orleans.
The routes for the first two weeks– at New Orleans for the opener on a Sunday then at San Francisco the following Saturday — are identical. In 1987, the strike year in which teams played just 15 games, the Saints were 12-3 and the 49ers were 13-2. This year both are 13-3. The Vikings dispatched both teams in 1987 on the way to the NFC title game. This year’s team will try to make it 2-for-2 when it plays at San Francisco on Saturday.
In talking this week to former Vikings corner Carl Lee — a key member of that 1987 team — several other similarities emerged among those two Vikings teams themselves.
*Deceptive strength: The 1987 Vikings finished just 8-7, but that included an 0-3 mark while replacement players were used during the strike. With their full roster, that Vikings team was 8-4 but still needed help to get into the playoffs after losing three of its final four games.
This year’s Vikings were 10-6, with consecutive losses in their last two regular-season games. But the finale has an asterisk since several starters rested. Really, the Vikings were a 10-5 team — and by advanced metrics via Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders they were right there with the best teams in the NFC.
“There was nobody at that point thinking we had a chance,” Lee recalled over the phone from his home in West Virginia. “But once we got into the playoff games, it was all about showing them what we could do and just playing. It was a collective effort and a momentum swing. We got tired of hearing we couldn’t play with them and couldn’t win, couldn’t do that. It just motivated us to go out and play. I feel like this year’s Vikings is the same way.”
*Using tension as a plus: Lee said the 1987 Vikings had their share of internal tension. Lee and fellow corner Najee Mustafaa (then Reggie Rutland before later changing his name) were constantly battling for glory over who was the best at his position, he said, as were linemen Chris Doleman and Keith Millard.
“Our team, we had some internal fighting that on the outside looks bad and sometimes it can get kind of ugly because everyone wants to be the best and paid the most,” Lee said. “But at the end of the day you’re measuring yourself against the next guy. That tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it can work for you. That tension played a major part in us playing so well.”
Against the 49ers, for instance, Mustafaa had a pick-six that helped fuel the victory. Lee grabbed an interception, too, trying to keep up with his teammate.
This year’s Vikings similarly seem to have moved past some early tension, which became public when Kirk Cousins apologized for missing Adam Thielen on a route and Stefon Diggs was punished for missing practices. Leading up to the playoff win over New Orleans, questions loomed about the franchise’s future.
“All the different conversations, this guy is mad or not getting along – that’s not really an abnormal thing. It’s competitors. Guys do want the ball. Guys want to make the plays and they want to be the ones making the plays,” Lee said. “It can be beneficial if you allow it to – or it can be totally negative. And I think this team is like us. They sucked all that up and are starting to make it be a benefit more than a hindrance.”
*Hard to keep going? The thing Lee hopes isn’t the same about the two teams is how things ended. After pulling those two upsets, the Vikings tried to complete the trifecta at Washington with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. They came up just short, losing 17-10 after Darrin Nelson couldn’t corral a Wade Wilson pass near the goal line in the closing seconds.
“The challenge within that was to sustain it,” Lee said. “It is taxing, to play at that high level week after week. We were right there against Washington. Things just fell short.”
This year’s Vikings would be on the road for the NFC title game as well — either at Green Bay or Seattle.
Lee admits he didn’t imagine at the start of the year that this could be the Vikings team to break the Super Bowl streak — zero victories and 43 years since an appearance — but now that they’re just two wins away he’s a believer.
He’ll be in the Twin Cities during the Super Bowl for a special event with several other former teammates, including Millard, Henry Thomas and Tommy Kramer.
“I would hope they win Saturday,” Lee said. “Maybe they will be that team.”