The Minnesota Vikings had come into the NFL in 1961, and were waiting for their first trip to the playoffs. The arrival of new head coach Bud Grant in 1967 put the team on a solid footing. And the 1968 Minnesota Vikings, while far from a great team, were able to give the Twin Cities playoff football for the first time.
Success began up front for the Vikings and the defensive line was outstanding. Carl Eller, the dynamic 26-year-old defensive end was a 1st-team All-Pro. Second-year defensive tackle Alan Page and veteran defensive end Jim Marshall each made the Pro Bowl themselves. On the offensive side of the trenches, the Vikes got a Pro Bowl season from center Mick Tingelhoff.
If you’re tough up front, you can compete, especially in the 1968 world of the NFL, and the Vikings were tough up front.
With a no-nonsense profile like this, it’s appropriate that the most accomplished player at the skill positions was a fullback. Bill Brown was 1st-team All-Pro himself and even the quarterback, 30-year-old Joe Kapp, was as renowned for being rugged as he was for throwing the ball.
Kapp, who had come from the CFL the prior year and taken over for Fran Tarkenton after the latter was traded, finally became the permanent quarterback in 1968, and his favorite target was Gene Washington. The 24-year-old receiver caught 46 passes for 756 yards, pretty good in a running era when defensive backs were allowed to get physical at the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings had gone 3-8-3 in Grant’s first year, but the signs of progress were clearly there as the season went along. Minnesota came out and buried the woeful Atlanta Falcons 47-7 in the season opener. Beating Atlanta didn’t make one a playoff team, but at the very least, Grant’s team had shown there was now a considerable distance between them and the league’s worst.
Up next was a road game with the Green Bay Packers that would prove to be a seminal moment in the history of this division (the teams of the NFL Central in 1968 are the same four of today’s NFC North). The Packers were in a new era, as Vince Lombardi retired following a Super Bowl win in 1967. They opened the ’68 campaign with a 30-13 win over a bad Philadelphia Eagles team. Then, on September 22 at Milwaukee County Stadium, a changing of the guard moment happened.
Kapp delivered a workmanlike 9/15 for 138 yards performance and Brown established the run, pounding in a pair of first-half touchdowns. The defense was excellent. Marshall sacked quarterback Bart Starr for a safety. Corner Earsell Mackbee picked off one pass, and safety Paul Krause intercepted another, one of a team-leading seven interceptions for Krause this year. Minnesota delivered a 26-13 win that stood out for how ruthlessly efficient it was.
We know in retrospect that it was a changing-of-the-guard game, as the Packers declined, and the Vikings went on to mostly own this division for the 1970s, but the immediate aftermath of Week 2 made one wonder if Minnesota could keep their focus.
They went to Chicago and Gale Sayers ran over them for 108 yards on 16 carries, as the Bears built a 17-0 lead and coasted to a 27-17 win. A win over the last-place Detroit Lions righted the ship, but then Minnesota managed to lose at lowly New Orleans, 20-17. What’s worse is they not only lost to a lousy team, but in came in spite of seven turnovers by the Saints. Kapp was awful, at 9/28 for 78 yards.
Another loss to a strong Dallas Cowboys team followed, and then the Bears came into town on October 27. Chicago had started slowly, with their win over Minnesota being the only one in the first five game. But they were finding their groove. Sayers again couldn’t be stopped, going for 143 yards. Kapp played well, going 16/27 for 205 yards, including six catches by Washington for 133 of the yards. But Chicago still kicked a late field goal and won a back-and-forth game 26-24.
Minnesota was able to play the Washington Redskins, en route to a 5-8 season next, and the Vikes won 27-14. They were 4-4, as were the Bears, with the Packers at 3-4-1. Minnesota again beat Green Bay, with Brown again rushing for two touchdowns against the Packers and then defense again being opportunistic, collecting four turnovers. The 14-10 win kept the Vikings tied for first with the Bears.
A win at Detroit followed, and then the gap between Minnesota and the league elite showed in consecutive losses to the Baltimore Colts on the road and the Los Angeles Rams at home.
The Colts were the best team in the NFL, on their way to a 13-1 year. They would ultimately be remembered as the team that lost to Joe Namath and the New York Jets as an 18-point favorite in the Super Bowl, but even that unfortunate ending tells you how good they were. The Rams finished 10-3-1, and only the fact they were in Baltimore’s division prior to the era of wild-cards kept them out of the playoffs. Minnesota lost the two games by a combined 52-12.
Minnesota stood at 6-6 and there were two games left. Chicago was also 6-6, but held the tiebreaker. Green Bay was 5-6-1, but got to play the Bears in the season finale. The Vikings had to keep winning, and with two road games ahead, it didn’t look good.
The first road game was at San Francisco, a team as good as any in the Central, but with the misfortune to fall behind the Colts and Rams. Minnesota played perhaps its best game of the year. Kapp was 10/17 for 150 yards, they won the turnover battle 3-1 and built a 27-6 lead, on their way to a 30-20 win.
By rights, this should have been enough to vault the Vikings to first place, since the Bears were in Los Angeles, but Chicago pulled off a 17-16 upset to maintain control of the division. Minnesota had to win in Philadelphia in Week 14 and hope for help.
The Vikings only threw the ball ten times in Philly, but Kapp made the most of it, completing seven and getting 135 yards out of it. Brown produced a workmanlike 78 yards and Minnesota churned out a 24-17 win. Meanwhile, the Packers were jumping all over the Bears in Wrigley Field, leading 28-10 in the fourth quarter. Chicago made a furious rally, but in the era prior to the two-point conversion, could only close to 28-27. Green Bay won and Minnesota was the champion of the NFL Central.
It might have been a playoff year that came about as much as a byproduct of the divisional alignment then anything, but that’s hardly unusual in sports history. Minnesota, at 8-6 was in the playoffs.
The trip to Baltimore for the divisional playoff round ended with a loss. The final was 24-14, although with the Colts scoring the game’s first 21 points in the second quarter, one of them a defensive touchdown on a fumble recovery return, it really wasn’t that close. Minnesota was never able to establish Brown and the running game. The Colts were able to make big plays in the air, as league MVP Earl Morrall went 13/22 for 280 yards.
But the most important thing about the 1968 Minnesota Vikings season is that they got to the playoffs. They would be back many more times in the years to come, and a run to the Super Bowl was just around the corner.