Someday, when all their potential stars fulfill themselves and all the annual preseason hopes work out for them, the Minnesota Vikings will win a football championship. That day won't come this year, because the club already has lost four games and tied one; it may not come for quite a while, because the Vikings have a frustrating habit of dropping important games just when they seem to be at their best. But when it does come, it isn't likely that the players will be any more jubilant than they were last Sunday night after their 20-17 upset of the Green Bay Packers.
In one of the biggest and best games of any year the Vikings threw the NFL's Western race back into its customary state of confusion. If anyone thought there would be a Packer runaway, he was wrong. With the Baltimore Colts' emphatic 37-10 defeat of the Washington Redskins, the Colts and Packers were virtually tied. Leading by only half a game, the Packers have a bye this Sunday while the Colts draw the winless Atlanta Falcons, and what is a tie in speculation now should be that in fact by sundown Sunday. The Dec. 10 showdown between the Packers and Colts becomes, in prospect, the game of the year.
Sunday's desperate battle was the upset of upsets on a day in which the bizarre was ordinary, as Dallas fell before Philadelphia, Cleveland succumbed to Pittsburgh, St. Louis squeezed past the invalids of New York by only three points and, in the AFL, the Denver Broncos—glue-factory nags so far this season—defeated Boston, the Eastern leader, with a touchdown pass in the last two seconds of a rainwashed debacle.
But to none of the winners was victory sweeter than to the Vikings. In the locker room afterward, Lonnie Warwick, the middle linebacker, played a triumphant flourish on his wooden duck-calling horn, as the others cheered. Carl Eller and Jim Marshall, the defensive ends, kept slapping one another on the back and yelling about the "new" Viking defense. "It's pride," said Marshall, the defensive captain. "It's a brand new feeling of pride. We know we can win now, and we're just going to keep proving it."
"The team has jelled," said Fran Tarkenton, who performed sensationally for the fourth straight game at quarterback. "I think we're playing the best football of any Viking team ever."
"We've arrived," Norm Van Brocklin beamed. "This was by far my biggest win as a coach. Now we've shown that we can play with the big kids." The Packers, the biggest kids of all, had defeated them in nine of 10 meetings since the Minnesota club was formed. And the champions were beaten with the very weapons that Vince Lombardi himself has always employed. The Vikings controlled the ball, they blocked brilliantly and they made the big play whenever they had to.
You remember the old Vikings—the scrambling, high-scoring, exciting Vikings, who seemed to win or lose all their games by scores like 42-41; the unpredictable club that employed few fundamentals and almost no defense; the perennial spoilers, who invariably made enough mistakes to keep them from contending for the title.
Well, a lot has happened to that old team. Van Brocklin, who quit in a rage for 24 hours when his players failed him last year, now takes his four-defeat record philosophically and claims, "We can still have a hell of a good year." The defense, described by the coach as "a punching bag for the last five years," is now a tough and effective unit. The offensive line, which originally let all those rushers through so Tarkenton could gain his reputation as a scrambler, was strong enough Sunday to master even the fearsome defenders of Green Bay.
Only Tarkenton himself has not changed his style. He's still scrambling out of the pocket, running for yardage or finding receivers at the last moment—and he's doing it better than ever. During the first four games this year—three losses and a tie—Tarkenton had trouble. "I wasn't throwing away games," he said. "I didn't feel the losses were all my fault. But I just wasn't doing enough for the team—didn't make enough positive contributions. So I decided to take more chances and do more scrambling."
Since he made that decision, Tarkenton has completed better than 70% of his passes for an even 1,000 yards, and he's run for 142 more yards. His statistics Sunday were not his best of the year—16 completions in 26 tries for 164 yards—but it may well have been his finest game. The Vikings were not making large gains, and they were often faced with third-down situations on which they had to get important yards or lose the ball. Nineteen times this big third-down play came up for the Vikings, and 14 times they made it.
"That's the whole game of football," Tarkenton said. "I know we have to make those plays to win. I figure, it doesn't matter if you lose a few yards, because you're going to have to give up the ball anyway. So there's no point being cautious. You might as well try anything you can. I guess that's why I seem to do most of my scrambling on third down." As he scrambled, Tarkenton found Preston Carpenter and Red Phillips in the open for several key gains. He also found room to run. He passed or ran the ball on seven of the Vikings' 14 third-down successes and called the right running plays for the other seven.
This kind of ball control became most important in the third period. With the game tied at 10-10, the Packers took the second-half kickoff and staged a typical Green Bay drive. In seven minutes and 35 seconds they ran 15 plays and moved 86 yards to score, and they appeared ready to take charge.
But Minnesota—that old go-for-the-bomb, hope-for-the-best, scrambling team—came right back and matched the Packer offensive. They took 17 plays and seven and a half minutes before they settled for a field goal that kept them in contention. Now it was up to the defense. Another time-consuming, demoralizing Packer push would put the game out of reach.
Warwick, who came off the bench to replace the retired Rip Hawkins this season, raced into the defensive huddle and started yelling. "Listen, you guys, the offense is doing its job for us. Are we going to let them down and blow this game? Let's tee off on them now."
On third down with three to go, Left Linebacker Roy Winston crashed through and stopped Jim Taylor for a loss—one of very few he suffered—and the Packers had to punt for the first time. The offense, sparked by an extraordinary 38-yard broken-play pass from Tarkenton to Red Phillips, again did its job, and five minutes later Minnesota had the lead 20-17.
But eight minutes remained, plenty of time for another long Packer drive. Starting from his own 20, Bart Starr calmly handed the ball to Elijah Pitts, who had gained consistently throughout the game and figured to get the Packers rolling again. Gary Larsen and Warwick stopped Pitts dead. Starr dropped back to pass—something he had been able to do with little trouble earlier. Marshall rushed him so hard he missed an easy screen pass to Taylor. On third down Starr faded again—and Eller and Paul Dickson smothered him. "It wasn't a matter of rinding a way to rush around or inside the blockers," said Eller. "It was a matter of overpowering them—of giving 200% instead of just 100%. And when we had to do it, we did it. That's all there was to it."
So ended the last Packer hope for a sustained offensive. Starr got two more opportunities, but time was running out and he was forced to try long passes. The Viking rushers never gave him a chance to get set. "We've been pretty proud of our defense this year," said Eller. "But today the offense made us look like Little Leaguers. We were glad we finally got a chance to do our part."
The offense succeeded with the same kind of simple power that Eller was talking about. The blockers didn't trick or outmaneuver the mighty Packers. They just outplayed them. "We used a lot of option running plays," explained Guard Milt Sunde. "That means that we just fire out and try to move the defensive lineman back. Then it's up to the backs to find the holes." The fact that the holes were there at all is pretty remarkable. Sunde "fired out" into the wily Henry Jordan. Jim Vellone, a rookie starting his second pro game, charged into Ron Kostelnik—and moved him. Another rookie, Doug Davis, kept Willie Davis out of the Viking backfield.
Fullback Bill Brown did most of the running. Tommy Mason, usually the most explosive Viking rusher, was ineffective and left the game when he reinjured his bad knee in the third period. But Dave Osborn, a seldom-used second-year man from North Dakota, came in to make several important gains. "That's another thing about this team now," said Van Brocklin. "For the first time, we have depth. When we lose a starter we don't have to panic. It's a good feeling."
For a team with a 3-4-1 record, the Vikings are feeling very good indeed. They've beaten the best, and now they all agree with Assistant Coach Jim Carr's pregame prediction that "we'll win all the rest. An eight-game streak would be perfect—just like that streak we had on the Eagles in 1960." In 1960, with Norm Van Brocklin at quarterback and Jim Carr in the defensive backfield, the Eagles won the NFL title. That goal is out of reach for Minnesota now, but the mood is similar. "It's not any phony esprit de corps," said Van Brocklin. "It's genuine leadership. Jim Marshall describes it right—it's real pride."
The Baltimore Colts were running up a score on the Washington Redskins, and as the sun dropped behind the west wall of Memorial Stadium a roar started to swell through the stands. For the first time this crisp Sunday afternoon the sun's glare was off the scoreboard and the Baltimore fans were able to decipher the news—and what they were reading would eventually be the story of the day in Baltimore, too.
It was already an afternoon of upsets in the Eastern division of the NFL, and now the people in Baltimore were hoping for a whopper in the West. The game between the Vikings and the Packers had just started, however, and there was no Green Bay score on the big board when the Colts left the field with their easy victory. But even as that hoped-for upset was in the making, the Colts in their dressing room were a strangely impassive and quiet crew. Almost as if they were afraid of jinxing the Vikings, they ignored a television set tuned to that game. Most of the players dressed and drifted off to meet their wives or friends.
Three of the Colts remained in the clubhouse. Johnny Unitas, who threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns, was on the trainer's table getting his throwing arm thoroughly massaged. Raymond Berry, who caught 10 passes and scored two touchdowns, stood in front of his locker, hands folded, and spoke quietly to newsmen. Jimmy Orr, who caught five passes and scored one touchdown, walked around placidly smoking a cigar. The rest of the country might be throbbing to the televised encounter in Green Bay, but the Colts were keeping their cool.
And so they had all afternoon. They won very typically, with Unitas throwing touchdown passes and a strong defense harassing the Redskin runners, particularly former Colt Joe Don Looney and Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. The Colt defense, which blitzed rarely, kept Jurgensen either on his back or off balance most of the afternoon with a furious pass rush, while the Colt offensive line protected Unitas so well that not once was he touched by a Washington defender.
"We usually like to blitz quarterbacks who get shook all the time," said Dennis Gaubatz, the middle linebacker who runs the Colt defense, "and Jurgensen does get shook. But we had such a great pass rush up front that we didn't have to blitz." With plenty of time to locate Berry and Orr, Unitas found them early and often. In the first quarter, both receivers had reported just how they thought they could beat the single coverage that the Redskins had assigned to them, and Johnny responded to their cues. Jim Shorter, who was covering—or was supposed to cover—Berry, intercepted Unitas' second pass of the game when he left Berry to double-team John Mackey down deep, but the interception taught Berry how he could beat Shorter. "He took away my deep patterns," said Berry, "but he gave me everything short." Thereafter Berry caught nine short passes—seven of them on sideline patterns and two on look-ins. "I wish he'd quit tomorrow," said Shorter after the game. "Every time I thought I had him covered he'd cut inside or outside, and then he'd have the ball. He always had the ball, didn't he? He's just the best, that's all I can say."
Orr, though, had a different strategy after his first few encounters with Lonnie Sanders. "Every team we've played this year has given me eight or 10 steps at scrimmage, and with my speed I couldn't go deep," said Orr. "The 'Skins played me only six or seven steps, however, so I told Unitas that I thought I could beat them long." Orr twice beat Sanders on deep passes, although he actually had to retreat to catch the ball each time. "I guess people think I'm really fast now," said Orr.
Fast enough, perhaps, to interest the Packers on Dec. 10.