Nobody's Perfect

With the Broncos' loss, the Vikings shed the aura of the underdog

On Sunday night the highlight shows veered away from the big hits and circus catches to a seemingly incongruous spectacle: a bunch of balding men raising a champagne toast. These weren't just any follicularly challenged individuals. They were veterans of the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, who'd gathered in a luxury box at Miami's Pro Player Park to raise their glasses to the New York Giants. For most of this season, of course, the Giants have turned in the sort of dismal performance no self-respecting football fan would be inclined to praise. But this past weekend they confirmed once again that old football saw "on any given Sunday...," as they applied the first stain on the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos' previously unblemished record.

In accordance with the former Dolphins' custom, a case of champagne will soon be shipped to the Giants as a token of appreciation for keeping intact the '72 'Fins' distinction as the only National Football League team to have gone through an entire season unbeaten. Perhaps the Minnesota Vikings owe the Giants a gift as well--if not champagne, then at least a case of some locally brewed malt beverage. Last year the Giants choked away a 16-point lead in the opening round of the playoffs to give the Vikes their first taste of postseason triumph under head coach Dennis Green in a game that's often cited as a key building-block for the current season's success. And now this. Not only have the Giants provided heartening evidence of the Broncos' vulnerability to the bomb (and how good that must sound to the deep-threat Vikes!), they have also eliminated one of the Vikings' more horrifying potential postseason scenarios: the prospect of facing an undefeated team in the Super Bowl.

During Minnesota's 1970s glory years, the team found itself cast again and again in the role of history's foil. The dynasties of that era--Miami, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Dallas--staked their claims to greatness by wiping the floor with the Vikings in the postseason. This year the idea of a Super Bowl matchup with the Broncos presented nothing so much as an opportunity for the most bitter amplification of that legacy.

And yet with Denver's puzzling defeat, the Vikings have assumed the look of The Team to Beat. They have broken the franchise record for regular-season victories and remain on pace to break the NFL's all-time single-season scoring mark. In the weekly power ratings, the Vikes, who have occupied the second spot for much of the season, seem likely to overtake the Broncos. And perhaps most important of all, unlike the Broncos, the Vikings managed to bring home a late-season win against an inferior opponent despite coming out flat.

Sure, in dispatching the mediocre Baltimore Ravens, the Vikes weren't crisp. In the first quarter alone, they gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Tailback Leroy Hoard, primed for revenge after having been dumped by the Ravens three years ago in a cost-cutting move, managed a mere 68 yards on 26 carries. Wide receiver Randy Moss, who has played flawlessly most of the season, dropped a few passes. And the Vikings' usually efficient offense had to settle for six field goals, failing time and again to execute the coup de grace deep in Ravens territory.

Yet, in the manner of championship teams, the Vikings won, and did so convincingly. Unsuccessful with the long bomb against the Ravens, quarterback Randall Cunningham settled for the short pass, and by game's end he'd racked up 345 yards in the air. Role-players--an essential ingredient in any title run--came up big as well. Second-year receiver Matthew Hatchette, subbing for the injured Jake Reed, led the team with 95 yards in receptions and converted three clutch third downs. David Palmer, the sort of nifty Dave Meggett-type utility man Super Bowl ballclubs always seem to feature, deflated Baltimore's second kickoff-return with an 88-yard TD scamper of his own, the Vikings' first score on a kickoff since 1989--and a sweet moment for Palmer, who has seen more than his share of big returns called back on penalties this season. (Palmer, it ought to be noted, also contributed a pair of third-down conversions.)

The defense, still this season's nagging question mark, made a good case for itself by holding the Ravens' offense scoreless until the fourth quarter, when the game was already well in hand. Baltimore's sloppy ball-handling--five lost fumbles plus an interception--was certainly a factor, but good teams are lucky teams. Every time the ball hit the ground Sunday, a Vikings player was there to pounce on it.

According to one school of thought, football teams revel in underdog status. But the Vikings, who lost four Super Bowls, were underdogs in all but the first, against Kansas City. If they make it to the big game this time around, maybe they'll go in with history on their side. At that point they ought to consider sending the Giants a crate of champagne.

 
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