By Tom Speicher of Viking Update, For Vikings.com
Each week during the 2015 season, Viking Update examines a past game against the Vikings' upcoming opponent. Some of the choices are obvious; others are not. However, all the games chosen stand the test of time
Rams at Vikings
NFC Championship Game
Dec. 26, 1976
The Minnesota Vikings were in a familiar spot the day after Christmas in 1976: the NFC Championship game. It was the third time in four years that Bud Grant's crew had advanced to the conference's title tilt. For many pundits and fans, it was a year too late. To this day, the 12-2 1975 Vikings are considered one of the best in team annals. However, that squad's Super Bowl aspirations evaporated in heartbreaking fashion during the divisional round when Drew Pearson answered Roger Staubach's "Hail Mary" to give Dallas a 17-14 upset win. The 1976 Vikings were a year older and getting by more on veteran guile and special teams play than superior personnel. Minnesota blocked 13 kicks in the regular season, which directly resulted in two one-point wins, as well as a 10-10 tie against the Los Angeles Rams.
The 11-2-1 Vikings blew out the Redskins, 35-20, in the divisional round to set up a rematch with the 10-3-1 Rams. It was the second time in three seasons the sunshine-baked team from Los Angeles had entered Minnesota's arctic-like Metropolitan Stadium with a Super Bowl trip on the line. The Vikings, who edged the Rams 14-10 in the 1974 encounter, were installed as 4.5-point favorites for what many considered the Purple People Eaters and Fran Tarkenton's last realistic chance to make the Super Bowl.
The good news for the Rams was that bright sunshine enveloped Metropolitan Stadium. The bad news? It felt like seven degrees. Early in the game, the Rams surprisingly had the hot hand. The Los Angeles offensive line dominated the aging Purple People Eaters, methodically marching down the frozen field. On second-and-goal from the 4, the Rams fooled Minnesota with a reverse to flanker Ron Jessie, who appeared to score. However, the officials ruled him down at the 6-inch line. Quarterback Pat Haden tried to sneak in on third down, but the Minnesota front stood tall. Facing a fourth down and just inches away from a game-defining touchdown, Rams coach Chuck Knox lost his nerve. He responded to the opportunity by sending in Tom Dempsey for an "easy" 17-yard field goal try. Nate Allen, a defensive back and special teams ace acquired from San Francisco earlier in the season, ensured that Knox would regret his decision. Allen darted in from the right side and fully extended himself as Dempsey kicked. The ball went off Allen's chest and bounced into the waiting arms of Bobby Bryant at the 10-yard line. The veteran cornerback ran 90 yards untouched down the left sideline to deliver a momentum-stealing 7-0 lead. When the first quarter ended, Los Angeles had run 22 plays, made seven first downs and accumulated 89 yards. The Vikings had just five plays, one first down and 17 yards. But the Purple Gang enjoyed an improbable 7-0 lead.
A second-quarter special teams play allowed Minnesota to increase its advantage over the discouraged Rams. Matt Blair blocked a Rusty Jackson punt to give the Vikings the ball at the Los Angeles 10. Despite the presence of gifted wide receivers Sammy White and Ahmad Rashad, All-Pro running back Chuck Foreman and future Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, the Minnesota offense continued to sputter. The Vikings had to settle for a 25-yard Fred Cox field goal and a 10-0 lead at the half.
Early in the third quarter, the Vikings offense started to come alive when Tarkenton audibled from a pass to a run. The result was a 62-yard dash by Foreman that put Minnesota at the Rams 2-yard line. A few plays later, Foreman's 1-yard plunge put Minnesota on top 17-0. Later in the quarter, the Vikings had the opportunity to bury the Rams, but Monte Jackson intercepted Tarkenton's pass in the end zone. The turnover ignited the Rams, who responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive. A Haden to Harold Jackson 40-yard pass led to Lawrence McCutcheon's 10-yard TD run. Perhaps rattled by the earlier block field goal, Dempsey missed the extra point, leaving Minnesota on top, 17-6.
Minutes later, the Rams struck again, putting some panic in the 47,191 frostbitten purple-clad fans. Again, a Tarkenton turnover led to the score. Fred Dryer sacked Tarkenton and forced a fumble at the Minnesota 10. Jack Youngblood recovered to set up the Rams at the 8-yard line. Haden eventually connected with Jackson on a 5-yard TD toss, and when Dempsey made the extra point, the Vikings had a precarious 17-13 lead heading to the final quarter.
The inability of the Minnesota offense to sustain a drive gave the Rams two prime opportunities to take the lead and deliver another heartbreak at the Met. However, the Vikings defense rose to the challenge. With seven minutes remaining, the Rams were faced a third down at the Minnesota 33. Veteran linebacker Wally Hilgenberg ended the threat with a sack of Haden. Four minutes later, the Rams were once again threatening with a first down at the Vikings 39. Without the option of kicking a field goal to tie the game, thanks to Dempsey's earlier missed extra point, Haden had to think touchdown. Three incompletions followed, but on fourth down, Haden thought he was about to snag a Super Bowl spot. Jessie, running a post pattern, was wide open at the Minnesota 10. Haden lofted a seemingly perfect pass to Jessie who had a clear lane to the end zone to devastate the Vikings and their fans. Bryant, though wouldn't let that happen. The cornerback read Haden's eyes and came off his man to pluck the pigskin out of Jessie's hands and end the Rams' gallant effort.
Moments later, Minnesota delivered the fatal blow when Tarkenton, playing with a bum knee, hit Foreman on a third-and-4 short pass that he took 57 yards to the Rams 12. From there, backup running back Sammy Johnson blasted through the Rams for a TD to make the final 24-13 and return the Vikings to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons.
Bobby Bryant returning Nate Allen's block of a Tom Dempsey short field goal try 90 yards for a touchdown. The clutch special teams play resulted in a big swing and left the Rams stunned for the remainder of the first half.
Vikings Player of the Game
Bobby Bryant. Not only did the cornerback return a blocked field goal 90 yards for a score, he intercepted two passes. His second pick ended the Rams' last shot to complete an impressive comeback from a 17-0 deficit. Like his interception return for a touchdown against Dallas in the 1973 NFC Championship game, Bryant's heroics on this afternoon helped send Minnesota to the Super Bowl.
Purple Honorable Mention
Running back Chuck Foreman rushed for 118 yards on only 15 carries and caught five passes for 81 yards. His 62-yard run and 57-yard reception were the Vikings' offensive highlights. Foreman accounted for 199 of Minnesota's 267 yards.
via the Dec. 27, 1976 New York Times:
Nate Allen (Minnesota defensive back and special teams ace)
"On the field goal, I got a good start, and the holder was a little slow putting the ball down. I blocked it with my chest, it bounced right, and Bobby (Bryant) picked it up in stride."
Bobby Bryant (Minnesota defensive back)
"I glanced over my shoulder when I fielded the ball, and I knew nothing would stop me unless I stumbled or they put a jet in there."
Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota QB)
"We want the whole world to know that this time we're going to win the Super Bowl."
This was last playoff game at Metropolitan Stadium. Minnesota made the playoffs three more times during the stadium's existence, but those playoff games were on the road. To date, this was the last NFC Championship game Minnesota won. Since 1976, the Vikings are 0-5 in the conference title game, including two overtime defeats.
The 193 rushing yards the Vikings surrendered to the Rams proved to be a bad omen for Super Bowl XI. The Oakland Raiders ran for 266 yards in destroying Minnesota, 32-14. The Super Bowl defeat was the fourth in four tries for the proud Vikings. Super Bowl XI will be chronicled in next week's "Purple Flashback."