The 1998 Minnesota Vikings were a team that had established a track record of consistent success. Since Dennis Green took over as head coach for the 1992 season, the Vikings made the playoffs in five of the next six seasons. Postseason success was lacking though—Minnesota never had a first-round bye and only advanced into the second round one time. Their division rival, the Green Bay Packer, had won the NFC title each of the previous two years and claimed one Super Bowl victory. It was time for Minnesota to make that leap themselves.
Randall Cunningham had made his reputation in the NFL as a quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles, but after his star had fallen in Philly, the 35-year-old was looking for a revival in Minnesota. More than a decade later, Donovan McNabb would try and walk the same path, but Cunningham’s visit to the Twin Cities worked considerably better. In 1998, he came up with his best season, throwing 34 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions and getting serious consideration for the MVP, before just missing to Denver running back Terrell Davis.
The offense had plenty of weapons around Cunningham. There were the Ohio State boys, in running back Robert Smith and wide receiver Cris Carter, each producing 1,000-yard years. The coordinator was a man on his way to a fine career as an NFL head coach in Brian Billick.
But no one impacted the offense more than an electrifying rookie. Randy Moss was chosen with the 21st pick of the first round and his ability to catch the deep ball transformed the Minnesota offense from merely potent into an absolute machine that averaged nearly 35 points a game.
Minnesota wasn’t all about the skill spots. They had three Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, and while the defense only had one Pro Bowler in defensive end John Randle, the Vikes still ranked sixth in the league in points allowed. They could beat you anyway they wanted, and for the 1998 regular season that’s exactly what they did.
The year started with wins over Tampa Bay & St. Louis, two teams that would play for the NFC crown one year later, though in ’98 they were 8-8 and 4-12 respectively. It was the next three games that put the league on notice. Detroit had become a solid playoff team, similar to Minnesota, but the Vikings forced four turnovers and turned a 6-6 game at halftime into a 29-6 rout of the Lions. One week later in Chicago, Cunningham threw four touchdown passes and beat the Bears 31-28.
Now the stage was set for Monday Night in Green Bay. The Packers were also 4-0, and playing in Lambeau Field, had every reason to be confident they would assert themselves atop the division. Instead, in a 3-3 game in the second quarter, Cunningham first threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Jake Reed. Then, after Green Bay returned the ensuing kick for a touchdown, Cunningham threw another long TD strike, this time to Moss. The Minnesota defense intercepted Brett Favre three times, and Cunningham later threw a 44-yard TD pass to Moss. The score reached 37-10 in the fourth quarter, before garbage time points from the Packers gave it a 37-24 final.
Minnesota went into the bye week as the team to beat in the old NFC Central (the current NFC North plus Tampa Bay). They came out of the bye and blasted Washington and Detroit in succession, scoring 75 in the process. At 7-0, the win streak came to an end on November 1 in Tampa Bay, as the running game couldn’t get started and the defense gave up ten fourth quarter points in a 27-24 loss. But two more wins moved Minnesota to 9-1 and set up the second meeting with Green Bay.
The Packers were 7-3, and this game was their last gasp to try and keep pace in the NFC Central. Minnesota answered this time with their defense. Cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock picked off Favre and took it 58 yards to the house, as the Vikes built an early 13-0 lead. Even though Favre would rally his team and throw for over 300 yards, Minnesota still led 20-14 in the fourth quarter when Cunningham went deep to Moss from 49 yards and clinched a 28-14 win.
Thanksgiving Day fireworks in Dallas were up next, as Cunningham and Troy Aikman went toe-to-toe, but Cunningham had more weapons. This Dallas team as a shadow of those that won three Super Bowls from 1992-95, and Cunningham threw for 359 yards in a 46-36 win.
At 11-1, the Vikings barreled down the stretch, winning their final four games and dropping 50 points on Jacksonville in the penultimate game of the year for good measure. At 15-1, they were the odds-on favorite to at least reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1976 and only defending champion—and #1 AFC seed Denver—was seen as an obstacle to the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship.
Minnesota got a mild break in the first round, when #6 seed Arizona went to Dallas and won in an upset, meaning the Vikes would play the weakest team in the NFC bracket. The Cardinals were no match for the league’s best team. Smith rushed for 124 yards, Minnesota built a 24-7 lead in the second quarter and coasted in to a 41-21 win. All that stood in the way of the Super Bowl was the #2 seed Atlanta Falcons.
The Vikings were installed as an 11-point favorite, the biggest the championship round would see until 2007 when the undefeated New England Patriots were favored by 14 over the San Diego Chargers. The Vikings and Falcons each scored in the first quarter, with Cunningham trading TD passes with Chris Chandler. The second quarter seemed to be the game we expected. Cunningham scored on a QB sneak, and even though two more drives stalled inside the 20, reliable kicker Gary Anderson booted field goals and the lead stretched to 20-7. But Chandler threw a touchdown pass to Terrance Mathis and made it a game by halftime.
Atlanta had their own drive stall inside the red zone and instead of taking the lead, settled for a field goal. When Cunningham threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to make it 27-17, the Vikings were in control. Even though the Falcons kicked a field goal, Cunningham marched the team down and set up Anderson for a 38-yard field goal try with 2:07 to go. If Anderson, who had not missed a field goal all year, made this one, Minnesota would have the game all but clinched. Anderson missed.
The game should still have been close to over. Atlanta had to go 79 yards in two minutes. But the Viking defense couldn’t close and Chandler threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Mathis to tie the game. There was still 49 seconds left. With a high-powered offense, a great deep passing game the perfect conditions afforded by the Metrodome, Minnesota could get into field goal range. Inexplicably, Green took a knee and went to overtime.
Green’s decision is impossible to understand, but in fairness to him, his team won the toss and had two cracks at winning the game in overtime. They couldn’t get it done either time. Atlanta finally drove it into field goal range, and won the game 30-27.
If there’s a more excruciating loss in a conference championship game, I can’t think of it. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings were one of the truly great teams of the past 35 years. But a part of greatness is closing at big moments, and all facets of the team—offense, defense, kicking game—missed a chance to do that in the NFC Championship Game.