This is the one in a series of posts about the best teams that never won a championship in the NFL.
The Vikings’ history is littered with great teams that never won the Super Bowl, including three appearances in the 1970s (in which they went 0-3 in the Super Bowl), but the 1998 team is the one that everyone remembers.
In 1997, the Vikings started out 8-2 and squeaked by with a 9-7 record, beating the reborn Giants in the playoffs 23-22, but falling to the 49ers 38-22. Nobody expected them to do quite what they did in 1998, but it was absolutely magical.
Randall Cunningham had his best season throwing the football in 1998.
Randall Cunningham emerged with his best throwing season, providing an equally potent threat on the ground, despite reaching the young age of 35. Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards, 34 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, a completion rate of 60.9% and a rating of 106.0. He went 13-1 as a starter, and was protected by one of the league’s best offensive lines.
Robert Smith had a great year, adding yet another layer of complexity behind the Vikings’ attack.
Robert Smith gained over 1,400 yards from scrimmage, 1,187 of which came on the ground. Smith also scored 6 touchdowns, and was the leading rusher on the team with 84.8 yards per game.
But all the attention in 1998 was given to the receivers. They were absolutely unstoppable, with the trio of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed wreaking havoc on the NFL.
What does Cris Carter do? Catch touchdowns! Carter backed up this boast in 1998.
Cris Carter had the best hands in the NFL during his time, and in 1998 was finally paired with Randall Cunningham 2.0. This resulted in Carter catching 78 balls for 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns, with an average of 13 yards per reception.
Randy Moss left pass defenses in ruins all throughout his inaugural season.
Randy Moss burst onto the NFL scene to say the least. 1998 was his rookie year, and he proved to everyone he was a special kind of talent. Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns, a rookie record. His 19 yards per catch led the team.
Jake Reed was Cunningham’s other big target. Keyword: big.
Jake Reed combined wide receiver hands and speed with tight end size, bruising pass defenders as he caught 34 balls for 474 yards and 4 touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings had John Randle, and that was about it. Okay, maybe that was a little unfair, but still. How many members of the ’98 Vikings’ defense can you name off the top of your head? Not many. Randle is a Hall of Fame talent, sure, and he played very well in 1998.
Randle finished the year with 10.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.
All of this greatness blended together, and that was the 1998 Vikings. They finished the season with 556 points scored, the most ever at that point. The defense also ranked 6th in the league in points surrendered, with 296. With a biblical offense and a strong defense, the Vikings finished with a league-best 15-1 record and received a bye in the playoffs.
Now, some may argue that the 1998 Vikings weren’t the greatest team that year due to strength of schedule and all that, but shut up and enjoy the brilliance. I know some teams might have had stronger schedules, but who else looked as good as Minnesota? People were breaking their legs to clamor onto the bandwagon.
In the playoffs, the Vikings first faced the 9-7 Cardinals, who were coming off a miracle win against Dallas. Predictably, the Vikings manhandled them, 41-21. This team was destined for greatness.
In the NFC Championship, the Vikings faced the other half of the NFC powerhouse spectrum, the Falcons. Atlanta had steamrolled their way through a Cinderella season in which their head coach, Dan Reeves, had returned from bypass heart surgery to coach the team. The “Dirty Birds” finished with a 14-2 record and felt that they were a team of destiny.
Early on, it didn’t look like it. The Vikings jumped ahold of a 20-7 lead nearing halftime, and it seemed Minnesota had the game in hand.
That’s where it all fell apart. Minnesota got a bit greedy with their play-calling, calling a deep pass play on third down in which Cunningham had the ball knocked out of his hands. The Falcons responded with a touchdown pass to Terance Mathis, cutting their lead to 20-14.
Come the second half, the Vikings had a 27-20 lead with 5 minutes left, and a chip-shot field goal by perfect kicker Gary Anderson (and I mean perfect, he was 35/35 on field goals and 59/59 on extra points) would complete the coronation and put the game away.
And it didn’t happen. It was awful. Anderson missed a 39-yard field goal, giving the Falcons a wake-up call and an opportunity to tie it. Predictably, Atlanta drove down the field and scored, but then came the confusing part. With just enough time to get down to field goal range with the fantastic offense, Dennis Green decided to play conservative and run out the clock, hoping for a nice overtime.
Well, that was a mistake.
Morten Andersen secured a Falcons 30-27 win, and the heart of Minnesota was popped, as the Falcons ruined a potentially epic Super Bowl showdown between the Vikings and 14-2 Denver.
Atlanta later fell in the Super Bowl 34-19, before crashing to a 5-11 season in 1999.
Randall Cunningham wasn’t the same player, going 2-4 as a starter in 1999 before being benched in favor of Jeff George.
Atlanta has never been back to a Super Bowl, not even the 2009 crew’s magic run with Brett Favre could secure a championship run.
Gary Anderson would probably be lynched by the entire state of Minnesota if they had the chance, but he was still a good kicker, becoming the all-time scorer in NFL history with Tennessee a few years later.