In 1987, the San Francisco 49ers were a great team, finishing 13-2 in the strike-shortened season. They had the best offense, best defense, and led the league in rushing. They seemed unstoppable, and even extinguished the fire of the 12-3 New Orleans Saints, who achieved their first ever winning season in 1987.
The Vikings, meanwhile, were a mediocre team on both sides of the ball. Their offense wasn’t very good, and their defense often gave up big plays. The Vikings finished with an 8-7 record, finished with a point differential of 1 compared to San Francisco’s 206 and barely squeaked into the playoffs thanks to a division featuring the Tampa Bay Yuckaneers and the Packers on a downturn. The Lions went nowhere and the Bears won the division, and with a little help and some magic, the Vikings entered the NFC Wildcard playoffs against the Saints.
The Vikings won in convincing style, blowing out the Saints 44-10, completing a pass on a last-second first half Hail Mary for a touchdown and Anthony Carter returning a punt for a touchdown as well. With this, the Vikings advanced to the NFC Divisional game against the 49ers.
The high-powered 49ers received a first round bye, and thus did not play a wild card playoff game. The two teams faced off in Candlestick Park on January 9th, 1988.
San Francisco led the league in scoring, points given up, passing yards, rushing yards, total yards, and Jerry Rice set a new record for touchdowns scored in a season. The Vikings, meanwhile, were just sort of “meh” in all phases of the game. Wade Wilson entered the game for Minnesota.
The first quarter ended with a field goal from each team, nothing too exciting.
The VIkings then burst out in the second quarter, scoring 17 points on an interception return and a pass from Wade Wilson. The Vikings entered halftime with a stunning 20-3 lead, and never looked back.
The 49ers finally got their offense going in the second half, but couldn’t overcome the large deficit. The Vikings went on to win the game 36-24 thanks to the unstoppability of Anthony Carter, who had a 30 yard run and 10 catches for 227 yards, catching a 63 yard pass at one point.
Why did it happen?
It all starts with the season itself. It was a season in which a players’ strike took place, limiting the season to 15 games while forcing replacement players known as “scabs” to fill in and play three games from Weeks 3-5. San Francisco went 3-0 with these players, easily defeating the other unprepared scab teams, while Minnesota struggled greatly. The Vikings went 0-3 with their replacement players, and as a result, their record wasn’t indicative of how good the team was. According to advanced statistical analysis and probability, the Vikings would have finished 11-5 if the season had been played through 16 games. If we assume Minnesota finished 10-5 (or 11-4), the team would have been taken into account for contention and as a result, New Orleans would have been more prepared in the game. Due to Minnesota’s mediocre finish, the Saints were obviously unprepared for the attacks of the Vikings and stumbled throughout the game. Thus, the 44-10 finish.
The San Francisco game itself wasn’t an issue of record, although it wouldn’t have been quite a huge upset if the Vikings were to finish say, 11-5. It would have been an upset nonetheless, however.
The main issue for the 49ers in the game was that they were rusty. They had rested their starters for a bit before the season ended, and also received a first round bye. Once the players took the field in Candlestick Park with notably poor conditions, they looked out of sync, particularly Joe Montana.
For probably the only time in his career, Joe Montana was not sharp in a playoff game. He seemed to be dazed, being pulled after the first half for Steve Young. Montana completed only 12 of 26 passes for 109 yards and an interception. Although Steve Young came in and scored some points, it wasn’t enough to get past the Vikings’ noticeably poor defense throughout the regular season.
Although the Vikings would not reach the Super Bowl, they played very well against the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, coming within a 4th down inside the Redskin 10 yard line from tying the game and possibly going to the Super Bowl.