The 1974 Minnesota Vikings weren’t quite as good as their 1973 predecessors in the regular season. But the ’74 Vikes were still plenty good, as they went 10-4. And they were just as good in the playoffs, winning a second straight NFC Championship before finally falling in the Super Bowl.
Fran Tarkenton was 34-years-old, but the scrambling quarterback still threw for nearly 2,600 yards. There was a bit of dip in production from second-year running back Chuck Foreman and veteran big-play wideout John Gilliam. But Tarkenton, and reliable right tackle Ron Yary on the offensive line, still led an offense that was able to finish fifth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was even better, ranking third. The fearsome front four of the “Purple People Eaters” was starting to show wear and tear, but they were still plenty good. Defensive end Carl Eller didn’t make 1st-team All-Pro, but he was still a Pro Bowler. Jim Marshall was now an aging 37, but could still play. The Vikes moved 26-year-old Doug Sutherland into the defensive tackle spot previously anchored by Gary Larsen. And no defensive tackle anywhere was better than Alan Page, again an All-Pro.
Where the defense did take a modest step back from ’73 was at linebacker and in the secondary. Jeff Siemon, the young middle linebacker didn’t make it back to the Pro Bowl. Corner Bobby Bryant had injury problems, but 32-year-old Pro Bowl free safety Paul Krause helped keep everything together.
Minnesota opened the season at Green Bay and broke open a 10-10 game in the third quarter, with corner Nate Wright picking off Jerry Tagge twice and the Vikings won 32-17. One week later, they took a defensive battle in Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium. The final was 7-6, as the Lions could only pass for 56 yards, while Tarkenton was able to throw for 142 and give his team at least a little bit of juice.
Another ugly game followed, an 11-7 home win over Chicago. But ugly or no, the Vikings were 3-0 and had beaten their three divisional rivals. Up net was a road trip to Dallas. The Cowboys were off to a 1-2 start, but had become a perennial playoff team under Tom Landry and this was a rematch of the previous year’s NFC Championship Game.
In a late afternoon kickoff, Minnesota gave up an early 58-yard touchdown pass to Roger Staubach, but Foreman responded by taking a pass from Tarkenton and going 66 yards. It set up a back-and-forth battle, and one that the Vikings would win 23-21 on a fourth-quarter field goal from Fred Cox. It set the tone for a rare year where Landry’s Cowboys would miss the playoffs.
The following week against the Houston Oilers, an average team, Tarkenton threw an 80-yard touchdown strike to Gilliam, setting the tone for a 51-10 blowout. Then, at 5-0, the Vikings let a couple games slip.
Home games with Detroit and New England—both .500 teams—saw Minnesota hold fourth-quarter leads and give them up on late touchdowns, losing 20-16 and 17-14 respectively. They righted the ship at lowly Chicago a week later, when the defense took over and led a 17-0 win.
The Monday Night stage was next and it was against the St. Louis Cardinals, who were on their way to an NFC East title. The Vikings trailed 17-14 at half and St. Louis quarterback Jim Hart would throw for 353 yards. But the Vikes ran the ball well, with vet Dave Osborn coming up with 98 yards. Tarkenton and Foreman each ran for touchdowns in the second half and Minnesota escaped St. Louis with a 28-24 win.
Bud Grant’s team held a three-game lead in their division, and this was an era were only four teams per conference were in the playoffs, meaning no first-round byes. Moreover, homefield advantage was determined by a rotation system. Which is basically a way of saying the Vikings’ regular season work was done.
They played like it the next two weeks. The Packers came to the Twin Cities and the Vikings were overrun by John Brockington, who keyed a rush attack that produced 202 yards and a 19-7 upset. Minnesota then lost in Los Angeles to a good Rams team, on their way to the playoffs. The Vikes led 17-6 after three quarters, but again had a game where they didn’t close. James Harris threw for 249 yards and led the Rams to a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns and a 20-17 win.
It’s this inability to close games that made the 1974 Minnesota Vikings “only” very good, as opposed to outstanding. They didn’t play well the following week at home against a poor New Orleans team. It was 15-9 in the fourth quarter before Tarkenton and Gilliam hooked up twice to finally break it open.
Tarkenton sat out the next week and played part-time in the finale, both games against bad teams in the Atlanta Falcons and Kanas City Chiefs. The Vikings still won both comfortably and whatever problems they’d had, they were 10-4 and poised for another Super Bowl run.
Another game with St. Louis, this one at the old Met in Minneapolis, started the postseason. It was a scoreless first quarter, then Hart and Tarkenton swapped TD passes in the second. The Viking defense played much better against Hart then was the case in the earlier Monday Night game though. Hart only completed 18/40 passes for 200 yards.
Tarkenton was much more efficient, at 13/23 for 169 yards, he was backed by a running game, as Foreman went for 114 yards and Osborn for 64 more. A field goal, a fumble return for a score by corner Nate Wright and a 38-yard strike from Tarkenton to Gilliam broke the game open in the third quarter and it ended 30-14.
The Los Angeles Rams came north for another rematch. Minnesota led 7-3 in the third quarter, when Harris hit Harold Jackson on a 73-yard strike that got the Rams to the two-yard line. But a false start was called on Ram guard Tom Mack, and forced to throw, Harris threw one to Viking linebacker Wally Hilgenberg.
Minnesota took a 14-3 lead in the fourth quarter and hung on 14-10. It was a sloppy game, with eight turnovers in all. But the Vikings collected five of those turnovers and it was the biggest reason they were going back to the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl was against the Pittsburgh Steelers down in New Orleans, at Tulane Stadium. The Steel Curtain was starting a dynasty and their defense was too much for Minnesota. The Vikes could only run for 17 yards. Tarkenton threw three interceptions and the only Vikings points came on a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown. They lost 16-6 in a game that wasn’t that close.
Minnesota wasn’t on a par with the Steel Curtain, just as they hadn’t been on a par with Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins the prior year, or with John Madden’s Oakland Raiders two years later. What the Vikings were was better than anyone in the NFC, a group of teams that still included Landry’s Cowboys, George Allen’s Washington Redskins and Chuck Knox’s Rams. And that’s pretty good.