The whole long, winding, improbable, sometimes bizarro road of the 2008 regular season takes its last twists today and comes to an end in the Metrodome against the defending champion New York Giants. The Vikings need only win this game and they will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Giants have much less on the line, having already clinched homefield in the NFC, and may rest many of their regulars. This circumstance may remind Viking fans of what happened in 1994: The Vikes were 9-6 going into the final game of the season against the 49ers, who by virtue of their 13-2 record had already clinched homefield and had no reason whatsoever to risk injury to Steve Young or any of their other starters. The Vikings themselves needed to win to clinch the division and guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs, as there was a mad scrum going on for the wild cards. The Vikes’ starting quarterback, Warren Moon, was on the shelf, and Dennis Green didn’t trust a relatively youthful Brad Johnson in such a big game – so a call was put out to former backup Sean Salisbury, who came in off the street to start, on Monday night, with the post-season hanging in the balance. Thankfully, the Niners followed the script by sitting most of their regulars after the first quarter, handing the Vikes a 21-14 win. The Vikings would end up losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Bears (that was the year four teams from the old NFC Central made the postseason thanks to the 3 division/3 wild card format), while the Niners went on to destroy the Chargers in the Super Bowl.
And while we’re on the subject of history…the Vikings have plenty of it in big games against the Giants. Who can forget the playoff game after the 1997 season when the Vikings fell behind 22-13 only to mount an impossible comeback with less than four minutes remaining? Randall Cunningham – who had taken over for Brad Johnson a few weeks before – threw a touchdown to Jake Reed that probably would’ve been reversed had there been replay in the league that year, then the Vikes executed a successful onside kick, with help from Chris Calloway, setting up a game-winning Eddie Murray field goal. Things would turn out differently, however, the next time the Vikings faced the Giants in the playoffs: New York would pummel the Vikes 41-0 in the 2000 NFC Championship game, effectively ending Dennis Green’s run as coach (he’d hang on pathetically for most of one more season before being shown the door), and sinking the organization into what has been a relative Ice Age after a great run of playoff appearances in the ’90s.
There’s a certain symmetry to the way things have worked out: Losing to the Giants plummeted the Vikes into a near-decade of mediocrity; now, by defeating the same team, we can catapult ourselves back to relevance. Getting destroyed by New York brought to a close what had been a successful head coaching career for Dennis Green (his tenure in Arizona would bring lots of amusing soundbites but few victories); for Brad Childress, a win over the same team could mean a new legitimacy for his own once-faltering career. The last few weeks have been filled with such seemingly cosmic circumstances for the Vikes. First they had to play the Cardinals, the team that infamously ruined their playoff hopes at the end of the ’03 season. Then they faced the Falcons, the team that prevented them from making the Super Bowl after the magical 15-1 year in ’98. And now…the team that humiliated them in their last NFC Championship game appearance.
It’s fun stuff to consider and write about…but it means nothing to the players as they prepare to take the field. Those guys are just going out there to do their job, history be damned. The job today includes trying to slow down a Giants running game that has been fearsome all season but may be without starter Brandon Jacobs who has been nursing an injured knee and probably needs the rest more than the reps. The Giants probably don’t mind sitting Jacobs since they have Derrick Ward who is himself only 52 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season, and has been averaging a scorching 5.7 yards-per-carry on the season. The Vikes also need to handle Eli Manning, who has thrown 8 picks to the Vikings in his two career games against them. Manning would seem a more confident quarterback than the guy the Vikes faced last year, when they destroyed the eventual champs 41-17. Then again, if Tom Coughlin has any sense, Manning won’t be in the game much, and neither will any of the Giants’ other primary players.
The key for the Vikings is to just play loose and not worry about the circumstances. I have no doubt that our defense will be up to the challenge, but what about the offense? Playing loose has not always been an easy thing for Tarvaris Jackson, who has looked good since returning as the starter, but had his issues in crunch-time last week against the Falcons and is generally lacking in big game experience. And then you have Adrian Peterson who disappeared down the stretch last year, when the Vikes still had a shot to get into the post-season, and last week looked as nervous as Rick Warren in a room full bat-wielding lesbians. Our young would-be superstars need to not cream their diapers this week. Yes it’s a huge game, but it’s still just football: This is the message I’m sure Brad Childress has been trying to impress upon his players all week. Chilly fancies himself a master psychologist – let’s hope that, for one game at least, he’s right.