January 9, 2012

1988: Anthony Carter Stars as Vikings Upset 49ers in NFC Divisional Playoff Round

In what had been an odd NFL season (one game lost and three played with replacement players) due to a players’ strike in 1987, the San Francisco 49ers emerged with the best overall record at 13-2. They were 10.5-point favorites as they hosted the Minnesota Vikings in a NFC Divisional Playoff game on January 9, 1988. While the Vikings had easily dismantled the Saints in the Wild Card playoff the previous week by a 44-10 score, they had finished second in the NFC Central with a decidedly ordinary 8-7 tally.

QB Joe Montana had recovered from a severe back injury that required surgery in ’86 and led the league in passing (102.1 rating), although he was having to look over his shoulder at backup Steve Young, who played well when called upon in relief. WR Jerry Rice had a sensational season, pulling in a then-record 22 scoring catches while appearing in only 12 games. The Niners were strong on both sides of the ball and seemed a likely bet to win a third title in the coaching tenure of the innovative Bill Walsh, which had commenced in 1979.

Minnesota was coached for the second year by Jerry Burns and while the Vikings lost all three contests that involved replacement players, they also were beaten in three of their last four regular season games. QB Tommy Kramer was afflicted with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, but backup Wade Wilson performed ably in his absence. Ex-USFL star WR Anthony Carter (pictured above) averaged a NFL-leading 24.3 yards-per-catch on his 38 receptions for 922 yards and earned selection to the Pro Bowl. The defense was tough and contained Pro Bowlers in DE Chris Doleman (11 sacks in a breakout year), MLB Scott Studwell, and SS Joey Browner.

There were 62,547 in attendance at Candlestick Park on a foggy Saturday. The field was already wet and rain fell during the last three quarters of play. Because of conditions, and with Kramer still not at full strength, Minnesota’s Coach Burns decided to start Wade Wilson at quarterback.

The Vikings had the first possession and drove 77 yards in 15 plays, converting two third downs along the way. Wilson completed passes for first downs on each of the first two plays from scrimmage, and also ran 11 yards out of the shotgun formation to convert a third-and-seven situation. Chuck Nelson kicked a 21-yard field goal and the Vikings had an early 3-0 lead.

If the Minnesota offense set a tone with its methodical drive down the field, the defense set one on San Francisco’s first play from scrimmage when Montana passed to RB Roger Craig and LB Jesse Solomon dropped him for a two-yard loss. The teams traded punts and the 49ers put together a 10-play, 74-yard series that included Montana completions of 18 yards to Craig and 33 yards to WR John Taylor. Ray Wersching booted a 43-yard field goal and the first quarter ended with the score tied at 3-3.

The Vikings broke the tie in the second quarter thanks to a 70-yard drive. Carter caught two passes that gained 12 and 11 yards and Wilson again took off and ran for 12 yards and a first down on the play before throwing a seven-yard TD pass to TE Carl Hilton.

Following a San Francisco punt, Minnesota got a big play when a third-and-10 pass from Wilson to Carter covered 63 yards. That set up a 23-yard field goal by Nelson that made it 13-3. On the next series, safety Reggie Rutland of the Vikings, used as a nickel back, intercepted a poorly-thrown pass by Montana that was intended for WR Dwight Clark and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.

Neither offense was able to move during the remainder of the half. Wersching missed a 26-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds and the teams went into halftime with Minnesota ahead by a score of 20-3 thanks to the 17-point second quarter.

The 49ers got a break early in the third quarter when SS Jeff Fuller intercepted a Wilson pass and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown. Minnesota came right back on the next possession, however, with a 68-yard drive. Carter ran 30 yards on an end-around play and five plays later, Wilson threw over CB Don Griffin to WR Hassan Jones for a five-yard TD.

Following an exchange of punts and with 6:29 to go in the third quarter, Walsh pulled Montana in favor of Steve Young. It did help spur the sputtering offense as Young immediately threw to Craig for a 31-yard gain and the five-play drive ended with the highly-mobile quarterback running around left end for a five-yard touchdown to make it a ten-point game. But the Vikings fired right back as Wilson threw to Carter for a 40-yard gain to the San Francisco 25. Nelson booted his third field goal, of 40 yards, and when Wersching missed again for the 49ers from 48 yards on the final play of the third quarter, Minnesota went into the final period with a 30-17 lead.

The Vikings went 40 yards in eight plays, highlighted by Wilson tossing a screen pass to RB Allen Rice that gained 19 yards plus another 15 thanks to a roughing-the-passer penalty on Fuller. While DE Charles Haley sacked Wilson for a 13-yard loss two plays later, Nelson kicked another field goal, from 46 yards, to extend Minnesota’s lead to 33-17.

Young came out throwing on the next series and was intercepted by CB Carl Lee. Following a punt by the Vikings, the Niners scored again thanks to an eight-play, 68-yard drive that ended with Young passing to TE John Frank for a 16-yard touchdown. But with 3:42 remaining, the result was no longer in question. Nelson capped the scoring with a 23-yard field goal and the Vikings came away with a stunning 36-24 win.

Minnesota outgained the 49ers (397 yards to 358), both on the ground (117 to 115) and through the air (298 to 267), and had more first downs (22 to 17). San Francisco turned the ball over twice, to just one suffered by the Vikings, and was flagged eight times while Minnesota was penalized twice.

Anthony Carter was the star of the game for the Vikings as he caught 10 passes for 227 yards (a playoff record at the time) and also had 30 more yards on the ground on his one run. Wade Wilson (pictured below) completed 20 of 34 passes for 298 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. HB Darrin Nelson led the club in rushing with 42 yards on 11 carries while the mobile Wilson ran the ball 6 times for 30 yards. Chuck Nelson set a NFL playoff game record with his five field goals, with no misses, which was especially noteworthy since he had been successful on just 13 of 24 attempts during the regular season.

Joe Montana had an uncharacteristically dismal performance for the 49ers as he was successful on just 12 of his 26 throws for 109 yards with one intercepted – he was also sacked four times (twice by Chris Doleman). Steve Young was 12 of 17 passing for 158 yards with a TD and one picked off and also led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 6 carries that included a touchdown. Roger Craig gained just 17 yards on 7 runs but led the Niners with 9 pass receptions for 78 yards. The Vikings secondary did a good job of shutting down Jerry Rice, who caught only 3 passes for 28 yards. Montana repeatedly looked for him but found him to be consistently double- and even triple-covered.

“I went with Wade because I thought the field would be heavy, and Tommy wasn’t 100 percent yet,” Jerry Burns explained afterward as to his decision to go with Wilson over Kramer. “Wade's ability to scramble and run got us out of some tough spots.”

“I've never seen Carter play any greater,” added Burns. “He’s a big-play guy in a big game.”

Minnesota’s postseason run came to an end the next week with a 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship game. Anthony Carter had another fine performance with 7 catches for 85 yards, but the Vikings were forced to punt 10 times.

Joe Montana erased any questions regarding his ability to still win big games in 1988 as the 49ers again won their division (with a lesser record) and successfully advanced to the Super Bowl, winning a dramatic contest against the Bengals. Along the way, they again met up with the Vikings, who again qualified as a wild card, in the Divisional round and avenged their 1987 defeat by a convincing 34-9 score.