The 1988 Minnesota Vikings were coming off a year where a strong postseason run left them just one play short of the Super Bowl. A well-regarded team, they spent much of 1988 looking ready to take that next step before an inexplicable late-season loss set them up for playoff disappointment.
Minnesota excelled on both sides of the ball, ranking fourth in points scored and second in points allowed. The offensive firepower came in spite of an injury to quarterback Wade Wilson that caused him to miss six games. But no matter who was at quarterback they still had Pro Bowl receiver Anthony Carter, who caught 72 balls and averaged seventeen yards a catch. Tight end Steve Jordan was another Pro Bowler and Hassan Jones was a deep threat.
When Wilson was healthy he was one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He made big plays, with his 8.3 yards-per-attempt ranking behind only MVP Boomer Esiason. Wilson’s deep threat didn’t come at the expense of efficiency—his 61.4% completion rate was the NFL’s best and with a 15-9 TD/INT ratio he ranked in the top ten at avoiding mistakes. Wade Wilson isn’t a household name, but there was a brief window in the late 1980s when he was as good as anyone.
What Wilson and the Vikings lacked was a running game. Darrin Nelson was a nice back, but more of a finesse-type, better suited to the offenses of the 21st century where pass-catching was more important than running. Allen Rice was the other main ball-carrier the problems with the running game are underscored by the fact Minnesota had nobody among the top 50 rushers in the league.
It wasn’t a problem with the offensive lineman. Left tackle Gary Zimmerman was a respected veteran still playing at a Pro Bowl level. The team added future Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel in the draft. The defensive side of the line of scrimmage was even better. Chris Doleman and Keith Millard each had eight sacks. Doleman was a Pro Bowler while Millard made 1st-team All-Pro and set the table for what would be a Defensive Player of the Year run in 1989.
Henry Thomas added six sacks from the defensive tackle spot and rookie Al Noga rounded out a good front four. In the secondary, corner Carl Lee and strong safety Joey Browner combined for 13 interceptions and each made 1st-team All-Pro. The Vikings had all the pieces necessary to make a Super Bowl run.
The season opened in Buffalo with a 13-10 loss. In the moment it was disappointing, as the Bills hadn’t made the playoffs since 1981. In retrospect, this Buffalo team went 12-4, reached the AFC Championship Game and started the strong run of success they enjoyed with Jim Kelly at quarterback through the first part of the 1990s.
A home game with New England started well, with Wilson completing his first five passes. It also finished well, with the defense picking off four passes and the team winning easily, 36-6. In between though, Wilson was injured. Veteran Tommy Kramer came on and though he only completed 12/27 passes, they went for 209 yards. If nothing else, Minnesota’s offense could still make big plays.
Kramer made more big plays in a big statement game at Chicago. He threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Carter in the first quarter to get the ball rolling. With the game tied 7-7, Kramer went 19 yards to Hassan Jones. The Viking defense forced five turnovers and an avalanche started. Kramer sealed it with a 16-yard TD pass to Carter and Minnesota won 31-7 over the team they would battle with for the division title all season long.
Carter delivered again at home against Philadelphia, catching six balls for 113 yards. In a back-and-forth game, Viking kicker Chuck Nelson had the last word with a field goal that pulled out a 23-21 win against the eventual NFC East champs.
A late Sunday afternoon game on the first weekend of October in Miami beckoned and Minnesota played their worst game of the year. Kramer threw four interceptions and was pulled for 23-year-old Rich Gannon. The only points came on a Pick-6 by Lee in the fourth quarter well after the game was decided. The Vikings lost 24-7 to a sub-.500 team.
Kramer got his spot back for a home date with lowly Tampa Bay and he played well, going 19/30 for 209 yards. It was enough to bail his team out after they were crushed in rushing yardage, 177-69. Minnesota escaped 14-13. But another poor game against a bad team followed when Green Bay came north. The Vikings turned the ball over four times, fell behind 16-zip and lost 34-14. In a rivalry where homefield is often paramount and in an era when the Packers stunk, this was embarrassing.
Another game with Tampa Bay was up next—prior to 2002, the Buccaneers shared the NFC Central division with the four current teams of the NFC North. This time, Minnesota got their running game going, winning that battle 128-28. The defense intercepted Vinny Testaverde six times, two by Browner. And most important for the long haul, Wilson was back and looking as good as new—he went 22/30 for 335 yards and led an offensive explosion in a 49-20 win.
The road trip to San Francisco on October 30 was a highly anticipated battle. Minnesota had shocked the NFL world the previous January when they came to old Candlestick Park and won a playoff game easily, 36-24, as a double-digit underdog. The 49ers were thinking revenge, but also in the midst of a quarterback controversy. Joe Montana was struggling with injuries and Steve Young was in the lineup.
Wilson played a good game, going 18/30 for 243 yards, but mistakes were the difference. He threw two interceptions while Young threw none. Young also made a spectacular 49-yard run for a touchdown late that was the difference in Minnesota’s 24-21 loss.
November opened with a home game against a weak Detroit team and the Vikes used a balanced rushing attack to pull away late. They ran for 198 yards as a team with no individual back breaking the 50-yard threshold. They led 20-17 in the third quarter and then ripped off 24 unanswered points to put the game on ice. Another 40-plus point explosion came on Sunday Night in Dallas. This was a bad Cowboy team, one that would get Tom Landry fired at season’s end. Wilson threw a couple long TD passes to Jones, the defense collected seven turnovers and the final was 43-3.
After two games producing a total of 87 points, the offense apparently decided to take the next week off. Indianapolis, the defending AFC East champ and in contention for a playoff spot this year, kept Minnesota out of the end zone. But the Vikings stayed away from mistakes while Lee intercepted two passes and Doleman picked up two sacks. In a battle of field goals, Minnesota beat Indy 4-1, adding up to a 12-3 win on the scoreboard.
There were four games left as the Vikings prepared to go to Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Minnesota was 8-4 and leading three 7-5 teams in the race for two wild-card spots. They two games back of Chicago in the NFC Central, but the Vikes and Bears were scheduled to meet in the Metrodome in the final Monday Night game of the season. Because Minnesota already had a head-to-head win, they only needed one break to make that a winner-take-all game for the division title.
The Vikings produced a defensive masterpiece for the Thanksgiving TV audience. They held the Lions to 60 total yards and just three first downs. The score was 20-0 by halftime and ended 23-0. On Sunday, Chicago held serve.
New Orleans was leading a packed NFC West race, up one game on San Francisco and two games on Los Angeles. Over in the NFC East, the Eagles and Giants were both 8-5 and the loser of that race would be in the wild-card picture. It made the Viking home game with the Saints on December 4 even more important and this was another rematch of a playoff game from ‘87 Minnesota had won with surprising ease.
The Vikings had won that playoff game 44-10 and they picked up right where they left off. Wilson threw three touchdown passes. Lee had a 58-yard Pick-6. The defense held two New Orleans’ quarterbacks, Bobby Herbert and Dave Wilson, to 10-for-37 passing. It was 31-0 by the half and ended 45-3.
Minnesota was looking like a Super Bowl team and the following night they got the break they were looking for. Chicago lost in Los Angeles. All the Vikings needed to do was go to Green Bay and win, and that final MNF game of the year with the Bears would settle the division and the #1 seed in the NFC, all in one fell swoop.
The temperature at Lambeau Field was (-7) with the windchill. Minnesota, in spite of being a 10 ½ point favorite and having everything to play for, simply did nothing. They couldn’t get the ball downfield in the passing game. The lack of a running game caught up to them. The result was a stunning 18-6 loss. Chicago played its own lousy game against Detroit, but the Bears escaped 13-12 and the NFC Central race was over.
Minnesota had a wild-card spot locked up and the events of Sunday settled that they would play Los Angeles and it would be in the Metrodome. The Bears game completely flipped from meaning everything to meaning absolutely nothing. At least it was entertaining—holding on to a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter, defensive end Walker Lee Ashley intercepted a pass on his own 6-yard line to stop a drive and then raced 94 yards for a touchdown to seal the 28-20 win.
The wild-card game took place on the day after Christmas, with a 1:30 start local time and it would go down as “the Joey Browner game.” The defensive back made immediate impact with two first-quarter interceptions. The first one stopped a Rams drive and the Vikings drove 73 yards the other way for a touchdown. Browner’s second pick gave the offense a short field and Rice bolted 17 yards for another score.
Minnesota’s offensive line would have problems in this game, allowing five sacks and Los Angeles was able to cut it to 14-7 by half. But the Vikings were taking care of the football and the defense was playing well. Backup running back Alfred Anderson scored his second touchdown of the day in the third quarter. The Rams got a field goal back, but Wilson flipped a five-yard scoring pass to veteran tight end Carl Hilton to all but seal the game in the fourth quarter. The final was 28-17.
Another January trip to San Francisco was at hand. Minnesota still had the respect of the oddsmakers and were only a 3 ½ point underdog against Montana in his house. But the 49ers were peaking at the right time and the inability of the Vikings to run the ball again caught up with them. They lost rushing yardage 201-54. Even though they took a 3-0 lead, Montana threw three successive touchdown passes to Jerry Rice and it was 21-3 by half. Minnesota lost 34-9.
1988 was the start of a two-year stretch that seems to meld together in the eyes of history. Minnesota came back in 1989, was again highly regarded as a Super Bowl contender and again made the playoffs. This time they won the division, but again they lost just enough to put them on the road in San Francisco in January and it again ended badly. The late 1980s were a good time for Minnesota Vikings football, but for the fans it was the all-to-familiar refrain of being not quite good enough for a Super Bowl.