The bitterness between these two franchises had a first moment. It was 1973, a Monday night in November. Minnesota was 9-0 at the time. The previous year the Miami Dolphins had the perfect season, going 17-0 and winning the Super Bowl. At the time of the Monday Night matchup only the Vikings were left unbeaten.
The Falcons were riding a five-game winning streak at the time, and home teams were 11-1-1 in 1973 on Monday Night Football. It was expected to be contentious.
Minnesota had steam rolled most opponents with a smothering defense and that allowed only five of seventeen opponents to reach twenty points, and no one reached thirty all season. The three games previous to this MNF game the Vikings held their opponents all to under ten points, sixteen combined for a 5.3 average.
They were in the height of eating people.
The Vikings also sported a flashy new offense now that Fran Tarkenton had some speed in rookie running back Chuck Foreman from Miami. Previous to the 1973 season Minnesota's running game mostly consisted of Bill Brown and Dave Osborn, the original "three yards and a cloud of dust" duo. Foreman brought quickness, great moves, and intuition that others like Oscar Reed or Clinton Jones seemed to lack in previous seasons. Brown and Osborn were great in their time, but would never be mistaken for flashy. At seasons' end, Minnesota would rush for 2,275 yards in 14 games. Foreman led with 801 yards, Reed had 401 yards, and Ed Marinaro 302 yards.
Meanwhile, Tarkenton spread the ball to everyone. John Gilliam was his deep threat, averaging 21.6 yards per catch among 42 receptions. Second on the team was Foreman, who had 37 catches for 362 yards. Stu Voigt caught a few, as did Marinaro, Reed, and WR Carroll Dale. No one dominated the statistics on offense. Just a lot of variety and a scrambling quarterback.
Strangely enough, Atlanta was led by Bob Lee, who was previously our punter and backup quarterback. After a poor punting year in 1971 he became expendable. Mike Eischeid became his replacement. Lee would later return to Minnesota and throw a touchdown in a Super Bowl loss.
Their head coach was our inaugural coach, Norm Van Brocklin (1961-66). In 1973 Atlanta would finish 9-5-0, only their second winning record since their inception into the NFL in 1966. However, they fell short of making the playoffs. In fact, it was not until 1978 that Atlanta made it to the playoffs.
At the time of the 1973 game I was nine years old. I lived Vikings every day.
Monday Night Football was in its' infancy, popular, but learning at the same time. Howard Cosell was the main voice, with Dandy Don Meredith and Frank Gifford with play-by-play. It was a wonder, night football on television with commentators you looked forward to hearing.
I was given the chance to stay up late and watch the game. My mother had a pretty strict bedtime my whole life and staying up to watch this game put a greater emphasis on its' outcome than normal. Plus, Minnesota was trying to prove in 1973 that they could do what the Dolphins did the year before. Beat everyone.
As fans of New England seem to know often, and fans of Carolina are finding out this year, tension grows with each victory. Like chasing Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, the pressure builds among the players and their fans. Collective breaths are held longer and longer the closer the streak gets to its' end.
On this Monday night everything went wrong. The game started out sluggish, and the first points were a field goal by Atlanta. Minnesota responded with a Tarkenton-to-Gilliam touchdown, and it was 7-3 Minnesota in the 2nd Quarter. By half time the Falcons had two TD passes from Lee to his running backs. Those two (Dave Hampton and Eddie Ray) combined for 169 yards rushing, 94 yards receiving, and both Falcons' touchdowns. The duo had 263 of Atlanta's 347 total yards. Against the toughest defense in football.
I started crying when I watched Lee make a key throw to keep a drive alive but cameras caught him stepping out of bounds prior to the throw. I think I complained so often, and growing in severity, that my parents cut me off from the rest of the game, claiming I was too tired.
But I wasn't. I was bitter. And angry. How could the refs not see that play? Where was instant replay? How could Lee be playing so well? Why did we trade him? Did Van Brocklin cheat? Why so many turnovers?
When Minnesota was stopped on a fourth down play late in the game that thwarted a last-second comeback and ended the game at 14-20, I was in my bed, deep into a fit that could only be curbed by threats of physical retribution.
I hated football.
I got over it later. It was just the first in a series of jolts. I attended the Super Bowl that year, a loss to Miami. I watched losses in other Super Bowls, the Hail Mary rip-off loss to the Cowboys, and the Darren Nelson drop against Washington in the 1980s. But no game will have hurt as much as that one, the first one. Or so I thought.
Minnesota exacted some revenge, beating the Falcons in one of their rare playoff visits in 1982. But that was the strike shortened year, when the league decided that 16 team should make the playoffs. It was too NHLish for the football fans. After that loss, the Falcons next playoff visit was nine years later (1991). In 1995, four years after that, the Falcons made the playoffs again, only to be ousted in the first round.
And then came 1998.
We do not dwell on what happened there. Suffice to say a whole generation of fans learned what I had experienced over and over again in the 1970s. Sometimes your team does not win even if they are the better team. Or if you wish hard enough you can somehow make a referee see a step on the sideline. Or help a perfect kicker stay perfect.
Minnesota owns a large edge in this series. The point differential staggering. The Falcons are a losing franchise that puts a good season together every now and then. They have 12 playoff visits in near 50 years. Their best season just happened to be the same time as Minnesota's best season. While Minnesotans can relish in the fact that their team owns this series, and is by far the more successful franchise, we must also realize that the Falcons have hurt us before.
It will be interesting to see if Minnesota can overcome the loss of safety Harrison Smith this week, he has been stellar in the secondary. Antone Exum Jr. will take his place, he of the outstanding tackle on the runaway fan.
Let's hope he tackles Falcons with the same veracity.