They're hot, they're explosive, and they know how to beat the San Francisco 49ers. That's the package the Minnesota Vikings will present when they head out to Candlestick Park this week for the next round of the NFL playoffs, after Sunday's 44-10 annihilation of the New Orleans Saints in the NFC wild-card elimination.
As they sat at home and rested last weekend, waiting to see what dish would be served up to them, even the mighty Niners had to scratch their heads in wonderment at what they saw in the Superdome. It just didn't figure.
The Vikings came into the playoffs off a bad case of the wobbles. They had lost three of their last four games, including the finale against Washington, which would have clinched a spot for them. They blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in that one and spent a day biting their fingernails until Dallas beat St. Louis, opening up the back door for the Vikes.
Minnesota's quarterback situation was shaky. Tommy Kramer, who would be first up, had failed to finish any of his five starts. Wade Wilson, his backup, has been a streak thrower, effective off the bench but inconsistent as a starter. And look what they were facing. The Saints had the longest winning streak in the NFL—nine straight—and the Vikings were walking into the middle of a town gone bonkers over its first winning team ever.
New Orleans started quickly. Kramer got sacked, fumbled away the next snap on the Viking 11 and the Saints scored in two plays. Six plays into the next series, Kramer was stumbling to the sideline, dazed from a blow to the head. Oh, it looked bad for the Vikes all right. The crowd was screaming, the message board was doing its electronic cheer-leading, but then the game suddenly turned as Mel Gray fumbled a Minnesota punt, which set up a Viking field goal. New Orleans's next two series turned sour, thanks to pressure from the Viking front four, particularly right tackle Keith Millard, who was proving to be nearly uncontrollable inside. Brian Hansen, the Saints' punter, headed onto the field after the second unproductive series, and Minnesota wideout Anthony Carter, the NFL's top long-ball receiver (24.3 yards per catch), waited downfield.
A couple of deft moves by Carter, two missed tackles and a finishing block by cornerback Issiac Holt, and Carter was in the end zone. His 84-yard runback was the longest punt return in playoff history. The rout was on.
Minnesota's skill people were displaying their skills, for sure. Darrin Nelson caught a little dumpoff pass on third-and-10, linebacker Vaughan Johnson misjudged the angle. Nelson breezed through the traffic downfield, and he had a 37-yarder, down to the one. Three plays later it was 17-7, Vikes. Some five minutes after that, Minnesota used a halfback option pass from Allen Rice to Carter to get another score. The Saints were coming apart.
Then came the finisher. At 24-10, with the Vikings killing the clock near midfield at the end of the half, the Saints were penalized for having 12 men on the field. Vikes coach Jerry Burns figured, What the hell, might as well give it one more shot. He got his wideouts in and lined up three of them to the left for a Hail Mary play. Hassan Jones, the middle man, raced downfield under Wilson's pass, leaped high and tapped the ball, then caught it in the end zone as he was falling, and the score was 31-10. So much for the ball game.
Now we must ask, What is the strange animal that will confront the 49ers on Saturday? O.K., Minnesota has a couple of dazzling big-play people, Carter and Nelson, both of whom were just that against New Orleans. Carter, though, has been a mystery, a guy who will make one or two spectacular long catches per game and then disappear from the offense. His gaudy average was built on only 38 catches, slightly more than three per game (nonstrike). Where has he been the rest of the time?
Well, on Sunday Carter showed his stuff as a possession receiver as well, catching six passes for 79 yards. The emergence of Carter as a possession man might pose problems for the Niners, who have decent, but not overwhelming, corners and rely on a lot of underneath coverage.
The real key to Minnesota's victory Sunday was defense, particularly the pressure the Vikes' front four was able to exert. It's a terrific group: Doug Martin and Chris Doleman, the best outside rusher, at the ends; Millard, their strongest inside rusher, and Henry Thomas, an active rookie, as the tackles. Minnesota's defensive coordinator, Floyd Peters, who built those fine pass-rush units at San Francisco and Detroit, is a dedicated 4-3 man who relies very little on blitzing. He likes his four linemen to do it themselves, working off a complicated series of stunts and loops—twists, they're called—freeing up the linebackers for coverage.
Minnesota's is a small line by today's standards, averaging 263 pounds per man, with no one heavier than 268. The quartet plays without relief. In the Vikings' late-season losses to the Bears and Redskins the defense crumbled at the end. One reason was that a bit of the edge was off the pass rush.
That edge will have to be back against the 49ers. San Francisco wideout Jerry Rice's spectacular production was carefully set up by a whole variety of shorter passes. The tight end, John Frank, has been in the offense more, as have the slashing, crossing, pass-catching plays for Roger Craig and Tom Rathman. When defenders close in to stop the underneath stuff, there's Rice, waiting. The key to stopping the Niners is cutting the production of the shorter routes, and that's where the Vikings' Jesse Solomon comes in.
Solomon, a weakside linebacker whose strength is pass coverage, sat out the Saints game with a knee injury, but he says he'll be ready for San Francisco—and Craig. Solomon is 6 feet, 236 pounds, but speedy—capable, he says, of a 4.5 40.
Last season the Vikes beat the Niners 27-24 in overtime, but Jeff Kemp, not Joe Montana, was the 49er quarterback. Two years ago Minnesota won 28-21, thanks to five lost San Francisco fumbles, one short of the 49er record.
"You have to go back into the Dark Ages to find a game when we played this poorly," 49er coach Bill Walsh said at the time. Or maybe it's just that the Vikings know how to beat San Francisco. And right now, they're hot.