Dennis Green had come to Minnesota in 1992 and immediately returned the Vikings to the playoffs after a two-year absence. In 1993, Green did it again. Both of those teams lost in the first round, but Minnesota was back on everyone’s radar. The 1994 Minnesota Vikings continued the pattern—they got their third straight playoff appearance and second division crown under Green. But they also continued the part of the pattern that was now getting old for fans—an early exit in the postseason.
Quarterback play had limited Minnesota’s potential in Green’s first two years, so the front office made a bold move in the offseason. They brought in Warren Moon. The future Hall of Famer was now 38-years-old, but he had still taken the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) to the playoffs for the past seven seasons. The Vikings were ready to bet that Moon still had gas left in his tank.
It proved to be a good bet. Moon’s 62 percent completion rate and 7.1 yards-per-attempt were each in the top 10. His 18-19 TD/INT ratio, with an interception rate of 3.2 percent was a problem, but in historical context, those numbers aren’t as awful as they would be in today’s game. Moon got a Pro Bowl ticket at season’s end.
His receiving corps was led by another future Hall of Famer. Cris Carter set a new league record with 122 catches and went over 1,200 yards. Jake Reed was a reliable second target, catching 85 balls for 1,175 yards. Quadry Ismail could stretch the field, with 45 catches at better than 15 yards a pop. Andrew Jordan and Adrian Cooper were reliable options at tight end. Amp Lee caught 45 balls out of the backfield. Moon knew how to spread the ball around.
The Viking offensive line was anchored by Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel, who had an All-Pro year in 1994. McDaniel helped clear the way for Terry Allen to rush for over 1,000 yards. It added balance to a Minnesota offense that ranked seventh in the league for points scored.
A terrific front four was the key to Minnesota’s defense and that line was led by yet another Hall of Fame talent having an All-Pro campaign. Defensive tackle John Randle finished with 13 ½ sacks. Henry Thomas also clogged up the middle and registered 7 ½ sacks. Middle linebacker Jack Del Rio, a future head coach in the league, was a Pro Bowler. DeWayne Washington was a playmaker in the secondary. The defense wasn’t great, but at 13th in a 28-team league for points allowed, they were good enough to win.
Minnesota opened the season at Green Bay. With up-and-coming Brett Favre at quarterback, the Packers were playoff hopefuls themselves. The new-look Viking offense did not play well. Moon threw three interceptions. The running game only produced 48 rushing yards. The defense kept them in the game by scoring a touchdown and coming up with red-zone stops, but the opener still ended as a 16-10 loss.
The home opener was against the Detroit Lions, the defending division champ, with Barry Sanders in the backfield. In the second quarter, the Minnesota offense finally found the end zone—Moon went up top to Ismail from 30 yards to get a 10-0 lead. The defense locked down Sanders, holding him to 16 yards rushing. The result was a 10-3 win.
Chicago was another contender in an NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay) that was extremely balanced. The Vikings went into Soldier Field and led 10-0 at the half. In the third quarter, Moon threw an 18-yard touchdown pass. Then Washington came up with an 81-yard Pick-6. The rout was on. Minnesota’s lead grew to 35-0 and it ended at 42-14.
The Moon-to-Carter show starred in a home game against the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins. In the first half, they connected on touchdown passes from 2,44, and 8 yards. Moon finished 26/37 for 326 yards, and no mistakes. Carter caught nine balls for 127 yards. The lead was 28-6 by half, and they held off a furious Dolphin rally to win 38-35.
Minnesota was now rolling at 3-1, with an opportunity to keep it going at mediocre Arizona. Moon and Carter kept connecting—the wide receiver caught 14 balls for 161 yards. But Moon threw a couple of interceptions. The running game was non-existent. There were a couple of missed field goals. And there was a 17-7 loss.
The Vikings faced the Giants on Monday Night Football. In a game that was tied 10-10 at the half, Anthony Parker made the big play—a 44-yard Pick-6. Then Moon hit Carter on a 20-yard TD pass. It was 24-10 after three quarters, and it ended 27-10. Minnesota had a win that would loom large in the playoff scenarios by December.
After a bye week, Minnesota hosted Green Bay on a Thursday Night. The Viking defense scored a touchdown in the first quarter and then knocked Favre out of the game. In an old-school, rock’em, sock’em game, Minnesota went to overtime and won 13-10. They went on to visit Tampa for a late afternoon kickoff. Parker had another Pick-6 to get the party started and it was 17-0 in the second quarter. The defense as a whole forced five turnovers. Allen rolled up 113 yards in the ground in an easy 36-13 win.
A home date with the mediocre New Orleans Saints was a bit sluggish, and Minnesota trailed 20-14 in the fourth quarter. But Moon was throwing the ball all over the lot. He finished with 420 yards passing. Carter and Reed both cleared 150 yards receiving. And Ismail caught an 11-yard TD pass to pull out a 21-20 win.
Minnesota was riding high at 7-2. They were in great position in the NFC Central, and even to challenge the two conference superpowers—the San Francsico 49ers and Dallas Cowboys—for one of the two first-round byes in the playoffs.
Then they hit the skids. It started in New England. The Patriots were reeling at 3-6 and Minnesota jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Then the pass defense completely collapsed, and it ended as a 26-20 overtime loss. The Patriots won out and made the playoffs. For the Vikings, it was the start of a brief, but damaging trend.
Moon threw for 400 yards in a home date against a bad New York Jets team, with Carter and Adrian Cooper going over 100 yards receiving. But Moon also threw four interceptions and there was no running game. Minnesota lost 31-21. Then they blew another winnable home game against Tampa Bay. Some early drives bogged down in the red zone. The third straight loss was another overtime defeat, 20-17.
The Vikings were now 7-5. The three-game losing streak had allowed the Bears to move into first place at 8-4. The Lions and Packers were 6-6. If you looked beyond the horizons of the NFC Central in the race for three wild-card spots, the Philadelphia Eagles were also 7-5. The Atlanta Falcons were 6-6. And in a race this packed, the 5-7 Giants and Cardinals could still be heard from.
The stretch drive would kick off with a big Thursday Night home game with Chicago. It was a back-and-forth battle. Washington had a 54-yard Pick-6 for Minnesota. The Bears got a special teams touchdown. Another Viking game went to overtime. This time, they got the last word—Moon’s 65-yard TD strike to Carter won it, 33-27. Minnesota was tied for first with Chicago and had a head-to-head sweep.
The Vikings went on to Buffalo. The Bills were the four-time defending AFC champions but were fighting for their playoff lives. Minnesota was sloppy, committing ten penalties and falling behind 17-9 in the third quarter. But Moon was playing mistake-free. Carter caught nine balls for 111 yards. Allen ran for 90 more. The Vikes rallied to win, 21-17. The Bills spiraled and missed the postseason. Minnesota was 9-5, and now in sole possession of first place.
There was an opportunity to put the division race and the 3-seed to bed, when the Vikings went to Detroit for an early Saturday afternoon kickoff. It was a disaster. The game was tied 10-10 in the second quarter. But Minnesota had another double-digit penalty day. They didn’t run the ball, and they couldn’t contain Sanders. The result was a 41-19 blowout loss.
With one game to go, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago were all 9-6. Green Bay was 8-7. The Vikings still controlled their own destiny to win the division, but they were not assured of a playoff berth. While the Eagles and Falcons had faded, the Cardinals and Giants were up to 8-7. If Minnesota lost their finale, they had the tiebreaker on New York, but not on Arizona.
The season finale was on Monday Night against San Francisco. But the Vikings had gotten a big break—the 49ers had wrapped up the 1-seed the prior week, and MVP quarterback Steve Young would only play the first half. Saturday was Christmas Eve and the day most of the league’s slate was played. Minnesota got an even bigger break—Arizona lost, guaranteeing the Vikes at least a wild-card spot. The Lions and Bears also lost, which assured Minnesota could go no lower than the 4-seed, thus guaranteeing a home playoff game.
Holding off Green Bay for the division was what was still at stake on Monday. Washington came through again with a defensive play, returning a fumble 17 yards for a touchdown. The Viking defense also recovered three fumbles. In somewhat dry game, Minnesota won 21-14 and clinched the 1994 NFC Central division title.
Chicago was the 6-seed and would be coming to the Twin Cities on New Year’s Day. The 4 PM ET kickoff would end Wild-Card Weekend. A solid (-6) favorite, the Vikings were fully expected to get their first playoff win of the Green era and first since 1988.
But they played a terrible game. Minnesota dug themselves an early 14-3 hole and still trailed 28-12 in the fourth quarter. They only ran for 49 yards. Moon went 29/52 for 292 yards but was reduced to throwing short—Amp Lee’s 11 catches for 159 yards were what led the team. A 35-18 loss was a disappointing end to the season.
The search for Green’s first playoff win would continue until 1997. The team never did reach the Super Bowl, losing a heartbreaking NFC Championship Game in 1998, and another one in 2000. In fact, the franchise continues to search for its first Super Bowl title, and its first appearance in the big game since 1976.