Not content to play just one football game last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears decided to schedule a doubleheader at Bloomington, Minn. The Vikings rudely trounced the Bears in the first game, otherwise known as the first half, by a score of 17-0. Then the Bears turned around and took it to their hosts, winning the second half handily, 19-3. Put it all together and it was a 20-19 squeaker for the Vikings, their fourth thriller in four weeks.
Only the opener, a 40-9 whupping of the New Orleans Saints, was easy for the Vikings. Then came the 10-10 overtime standoff with Los Angeles—the game in which Quarterback Francis Tarkenton threw that mysterious goal-line interception when the Vikings were only a chip-shot field goal away from sudden-death victory; a 10-9 decision over the Detroit Lions, thanks to a goal-line stand and a mishandled snap on Detroit's try for the game-tying extra point; and, penultimately, the 17-6 manhandling of the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous Monday night, a triumph abetted by several dozen Steeler errors.
Winning the close ones is the sign of a Super Bowl champion—something the Vikings have never been—and so far Minnesota has not lost any of the squeakers. In contrast, the Bears, young and eager but totally unpolished, are a building team that is just getting good. Such teams are good in flashes, and the Bears flashed aplenty during the second game of the doubleheader.
"The Bears played well," Minnesota Coach Bud Grant said after the games, "but what's so unusual about that? In the last 10 years most of our games with them have been tough." Maybe so, but for the last 10 years the Bears have hardly qualified as the Monsters of the Midway, losing twice as many games as they have won. Now Chicago was fresh from a 33-7 mauling of the Washington Redskins and was fighting Minnesota for the lead in the NFC's Central Division, coming in with a surprising 3-1 record compared to the Vikings' 3-0-1. Grant was concerned enough about the Bears, particularly their hungry front four, which led the NFL with 21 quarterback sacks, that he kept Tarkenton on the sidelines throughout the Pittsburgh game rather than risk any further injury to the quarterback's ribs. More rib-rattling might prevent him from playing against the Bears. Grant's reasoning was clear: beating back the Bears' challenge for leadership in the Central Division was more important than any interdivisional contest, because division champions automatically qualify for the postseason playoffs.
October 17, 1976
What happened to the Bears in Sunday's first half, though, was what happens to most young clubs that meet the experienced Vikings: they showed their youth.
The first time Tarkenton got his hands on the ball he engineered a 58-yard, eight-play march that ended with Chuck Foreman pounding over from five yards out. Despite touches of toughness from a defense that has yet to meld perfectly and some fine first-half bursts by Running Back Walter Payton—runs that gave ominous presentiment of what was to come—the Bears dropped behind 10-0 in the second quarter when Fred Cox kicked a 29-yard field goal. But the Bears' worst enemy was the yellow flag—the game was to see 11 of them thrown at Chicago, painful to the extent of 90 lost yards—along with some dreadful punts that dribbled off the toe of Bob Parsons.
As if to seal matters, Tarkenton put together another drive toward the end of the half—this one going 46 yards in nine plays, featured by a 39-yard pass to Wide Receiver Sammy White, the rookie from Grambling who has replaced the departed John Gilliam as Tarkenton's favorite "big-play" man. Foreman once again punched over for the touchdown. Cox's extra point was good, and thus Minnesota won the first game 17-zip.
The first-half stats, as much as the score, seemed to leave no doubt as to the eventual outcome. The Vikings had rolled up 12 first downs and 179 yards of total offense, compared to the Bears' totals of five and 119. Tarkenton had balanced his attack nicely, too, getting 87 yards from Foreman and friends on the ground and 92 through the air. But buried away in those halftime stats was a figure that would soon bring a chill to the hearts of the 47,614 Viking faithful who had trudged out to their groaning tailgates for the customary halftime repast. Payton, the second-year man from Jackson State who leads the NFL in rushing, had amassed 77 yards in 11 carries, and he had only begun his act.
Sure enough, the Bears came out running in the second half. After Chicago stopped Minnesota on its first possession, Payton began to pound the Vikings' defense. He went for 16 yards in one incredible squirting burst up the left side. Then a pop for five, another for three, followed by a sweep to the right for 10 behind his excellent pulling guards, Jeff Sevy and Revie Sorey—both, like Pay-ton, in their second pro seasons. When Payton wasn't ripping the vaunted Viking run defense that had held Pittsburgh's Franco Harris to a measly 34 yards just six days earlier, running mate Roland Harper was. Harper banged for 19 and 12 yards on a Chicago ground drive that would have made Erwin Rommel grin. With the ball at the Minnesota 13, Payton again swept right and culminated an 80-yard, nine-play, passless push by blasting into the end zone. Suddenly, the Bears were back in the running in more ways than one.
Now it was Minnesota's turn to flounder. The next offensive series broke down when Tarkenton was sacked back on his 19-yard line. Ultimately, Tarkenton went down four times as the Bears increased their quarterback muggings to a league-high 25 for five games. After Neil Clabo's punt, the Bears picked up where they'd left off, which means that Quarterback Bob Avellini kept the ball on the ground. Payton pounded into the middle, found the way jammed up by blockers and tacklers, bounced off a few unfriendly legs and shoulders, then skirted left and galloped 49 yards to the end zone. Alas, Chicago's Noah Jackson, a reserve guard, was caught clipping on the run, and the touchdown was nullified. Undaunted, the Bears punted to Minnesota, and on the Vikings' first play the Bears forced—and recovered—a Foreman fumble at the Minnesota 14-yard line. On second down at the 11, Payton headed for the right side and slammed across the goal.
Then came the kind of play for which Minnesota is famous. The extra-point try by Chicago's Bob Thomas was blocked by 6'5" Linebacker Matt Blair, the star of the Vikings' off-season basketball team. It was the seventh time this season that a Viking had blocked either a field goal or an extra point, with Cornerback Nate Allen—acquired from San Francisco during the preseason in what Grant calls "one of the best trades I ever made"—accounting for three of them. Tackle Alan Page two, End Carl Eller one and now Blair one, too.
The 17-13 score stood only until the beginning of the final quarter, when Cox kicked a 39-yard field goal for a 20-13 Viking lead. But the Bears were still coming on, and suddenly Avellini, the second-year man from Maryland, began to use the air. He had almost no choice; weakened by his recent bout of flu, Payton had been taken out of the game after scoring his second touchdown, and now he was watching dazedly from the sidelines. Avellini steadily moved the Bears through Viking country by mixing passes to Wide Receiver James Scott with runs by Harper, who was doing Payton's work. Harper punched for five, six, five, 11 and then the final seven yards for the touchdown that lifted the Bears to within a point of the Vikings at 20-19.
Well, it might have been nice. All the Bears needed to tie the game at 20 was one measly extra point. But once again the try failed, this time Thomas—wary, no doubt, of the Viking spikers—missing wide to the right of the uprights. The rest of the action was typical Black-and-Blue Division mayhem, but fruitless for both sides. The Bears did have another shot at victory with 3:10 to play, but Thomas' 52-yard field-goal attempt was no good. Payton returned for the last play of the game and collaborated with Avellini on a 34-yard pass completion. Unfortunately for the Bears, it was 48 yards shy of a miracle.
Still, Payton's 141 yards in 19 carries for the day—only seven short of his career best against San Francisco—bode well for Chicago's future. "Payton going out of the game in the fourth quarter made a lot of difference," Grant said afterward. "He's a great football player." Indeed, he is. At 5'10½" by 203 pounds, Payton runs with the fury of a billiard ball gone berserk. His ferocity afoot belies his nickname, which is, oddly enough, "Sweetness." Off the field, it fits. Soft-spoken, painfully shy to the point of introspection, Payton is a young man of deep religious conviction, the kind of man who springs up now and then from the black loam of his native Mississippi—running madly, praying humbly and singing soul music on the side. (Payton once won the U.S. Soul Train Dance Contest.) Though he sings no more in choirs, preferring to let his feet warble for him, he does play the drums to unwind. Especially after Sunday doubleheaders against the Vikings.