The Vikings have been to the NFC Championship Game six times since their last of four Super Bowl appearances in 1976. Every one of those losses has been memorable for all of the wrong reasons.
Most recently, they lost to the Eagles 38-7 in 2017. In 2009, they lost 31-28 in overtime to the Saints. In 2000, they lost 41-0 to the Giants. In 1998, they lost 30-27 to the Falcons in overtime. In 1977, they lost 23-6 to the Cowboys.
While all of those losses — some blowouts, some painfully close — remain rooted in Vikings lore, one of the team’s toughest losses in such a game was during the 1987 season, when they faced the Redskins — Thursday’s opponent at U.S. Bank Stadium — at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. The Vikings lost 17-10 on one of the most controversial plays in team history.
The Star Tribune headline read: “Previously relaxed Vikings tighten up in NFC title game.”
That was the truth. It came down to one final snap, with the Vikings facing fourth-and-4 at the Washington 6-yard line and 56 seconds remaining.
Running back Darrin Nelson got open in the left flat near the goal line, but the pass from Wade Wilson bounced off his hands just as he was tackled. If Nelson had made that catch, the Vikings would have had a first down or possibly a touchdown to tie the score and force overtime.
But the fact is wide receiver Anthony Carter ran the wrong route on the play, which brought an extra defender over near Nelson.
“I was open at the time, but if I had run the proper route, maybe my man and the other guy who had Nelson wouldn’t have hit Nelson as the ball got there,” Carter told me after the game. “The pass was to go to Nelson. I think I ran a different route, which I think I could have gotten open on. Unfortunately that ball went to Nelson.”
Longtime Vikings trainer Fred Zamberletti told me before the game that several Vikings players had come down with the flu — including Nelson, Wilson and defensive tackle Henry Thomas.
Zamberletti said he originally thought the team was just dealing with tension and nerves before the big game. The Vikings played tight all the way through that NFC Championship Game, dropping passes left and right.
Hottest team in NFL
The Vikings had entered the NFC playoffs that season as a wild-card team but quickly became the hottest team in football by winning two road games. They dominated the Saints 44-10, then went to San Francisco to play one of the best teams of the decade and beat the 49ers 36-24. No one saw that coming.
Joe Montana started that game for San Francisco but was sacked four times and threw an interception before he was replaced by Steve Young. But those two Hall of Famers were outplayed by Wilson, who threw for 298 yards and two scores.
Head coach Jerry Burns told me a few days after the loss that he felt like the team had really become a special club, even though they lost to Washington.
“I don’t know if there are any super teams and you can’t say we won’t have another opportunity,” he said. “I think in the end, we rallied the support of the fans to the team. And after those two big games against the Saints and 49ers, we’re recognized nationally. I think this team made a tremendous stride, particularly toward the end of the year.”
Burns led the Vikings to the playoffs again in 1988 and 1989, losing in the divisional round both times and did not reach another conference championship game before he retired in 1991.
Winfield’s big plays
Part of the story of Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has been his knack for making big plays that win games.
In the Gophers’ 42-7 victory over Rutgers on Saturday, which moved them to No. 17 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, Winfield had two interceptions, including a 33-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter.
Winfield is second on the team in tackles with 40 and has four interceptions to go along with a forced fumble and two sacks. His four interceptions are tied for the fourth most in college football and lead the Big Ten.
The redshirt sophomore is fully healthy after playing four games each of the past two seasons because of injuries.
“The coaching staff and all the players have had my back since I have been out the last two years,” Winfield said. “It is always good to have them behind you. But it has just been a blessing. I have been having a great time out there on the field.”
Winfield said that time away from the game had a big impact on who he is now as a player.
“The biggest thing I learned is just patience,” he said. “Everybody wants fast results, now. But the biggest thing I learned from sitting out is just that you have to be more patient with things and it will come when it’s supposed to come.”
Winfield wants his playing career to continue after finishing with the Gophers and follow his father, former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, into the pros.
He credits his dad with helping him become the player he is today.
“A huge amount of influence,” he said. “I mean, he has taught me everything that I really know, as far as technique and going out there to play. He has done everything for me.”
A special player
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Winfield is simply one of the best players in the nation and should be in the conversation to be an All-America if he continues his stellar play.
“We all know what type of special player he is,” Fleck said. “I will say Joe Harasymiak, our safeties coach, has developed [Winfield] into, I think, one of the premier safeties in the country. That just doesn’t happen on athletic ability. He is always in the right spot. He is always where you need him. He is always making plays. And he is always affecting the game. That is part being a player and it is part you have to have the right coaching to be in the right position. He deserves a lot of credit.”
Fleck added that someday soon, it could be the son who is getting more notice than his father.
“Antoine Winfield Jr. is one of those young men that is really, really special,” Fleck said. “After the game, he is on the phone with his dad and I walk behind him and it’s going to be kind of turned around one of these days possibly, where it goes from, ‘Hey you’re Antoine Sr.’s son.’ No, now it’s going to be, ‘That’s your dad?’ It’s going to be flipped a little bit here as we keep going forward because he is a really special player.”