The NFC Wild Card Playoff game on December 27, 1997 featured the New York Giants, who had gone from last to first in the NFC East, against the visiting Minnesota Vikings, a team that had been to the postseason in four of the previous five years but had failed to win at that level in any of them.
Four of the five teams in the NFC Central had qualified for the playoffs in ’97, with the fourth-place Vikings having grabbed the final Wild Card slot. Under sixth-year Head Coach Dennis Green (pictured at right), the team had gotten off to an 8-2 start before losing five straight contests and just making it into the playoffs at 9-7. Oft-injured RB Robert Smith finally realized his potential with a rushing output of 1266 yards and wide receivers Cris Carter and Jake Reed were highly capable. QB Brad Johnson had played very well before suffering a season-ending neck injury, but veteran QB Randall Cunningham, back in the NFL after a year of retirement, filled in ably in his absence. The defense had a star in DT John Randle but was lacking elsewhere, in particular the backfield. Moreover, there was uncertainty regarding the possible sale of the team and Minnesota had yet to win a playoff game under Coach Green, who was not on the best terms with the current owners who were angered by comments made in his autobiography that was published during the season.
New York had a first-year head coach in Jim Fassel and had gone from 6-10 to 10-5-1. Second-year QB Danny Kanell took over the starting job from the disappointing Dave Brown with favorable, if far from spectacular, results. Versatile FB Charles Way was the team’s top rusher while rookie RB Tiki Barber was splitting time with Tyrone Wheatley. Chris Calloway was the most productive of the wide receivers. The defense had All-Pros in DE Michael Strahan, with his 14 sacks, and LB Jessie Armstead.
There were 77,497 fired-up fans in attendance on a snowy day at Giants Stadium – not a good situation for a team like that Vikings that played its home games in a domed stadium. The weather made it very difficult on both offenses throughout the contest. The teams traded punts until Randall Cunningham fumbled and DT Bernard Holsey recovered for the Giants at the Minnesota 23. New York lost ground from there but Brad Daluiso (pictured below) kicked a 43-yard field goal for the early lead.
No sooner did the Vikings get the ball back when Cunningham fumbled it away again, this time with Michael Strahan recovering at the Minnesota 46. The Giants had more success on offense this time, driving to the four yard line with the big play a completion by Danny Kanell to Charles Way for 27 yards. Still, they settled for another Daluiso field goal of 22 yards but took a 6-0 lead into the second quarter.
The Giants had possession as the game moved into the second quarter and this time drove 56 yards in seven plays to a touchdown. Kanell threw to Tiki Barber for 11 yards in a third-and-four situation at midfield and then passed to WR David Patten for a 37-yard gain to the Minnesota two. A running play lost a yard but Kanell connected with TE Aaron Pierce for the two-yard TD. Daluiso’s extra point made it 13-0 in favor of the home team.
After the teams again traded punts another turnover by the Vikings led to more New York points. Cunningham’s long pass was intercepted by CB Jason Sehorn, who returned it 36 yards to the Minnesota 47. The ensuing six-play, 23-yard series ended with a third Daluiso field goal, this time from 41 yards, that made the score 16-0.
The Vikings finally got a break on a turnover when, following a punt on a three-and-out possession, WR Amani Toomer fumbled and Minnesota got the ball at the New York 26. Cunningham threw to Cris Carter for 19 yards to the seven yard line, but the Vikings were unable to move the ball any further. 41-year-old Eddie Murray kicked a 26-yard field goal to get the visitors on the board.
With less than two minutes remaining in the half as the Giants got the ball again, the scoring was not yet over. New York, starting at the 40 thanks to Minnesota’s kickoff going out of bounds, put together a 10-play drive that gained 26 yards and led to Daluiso kicking a 51-yard field goal to make the halftime score 19-3. While the Giants hadn’t been overly impressive offensively in the first half, Minnesota had gained just 21 rushing yards and Cunningham (pictured at right) completed only 5 of 16 passes. In addition, Cunningham’s two fumbles and an interception all led to points for New York.
The Vikings had the first possession of the third quarter and had to punt, but a fumble by Barber gave them the ball again at the New York four. From there, RB Leroy Hoard ran for a touchdown that, with the point after, narrowed the margin for the Giants to 19-10.
Following a short possession by the Giants, Minnesota drove into New York territory on a series highlighted by a Cunningham pass to Jake Reed for 33 yards. However, Murray’s field goal attempt from 48 yards was unsuccessful. The Vikings got the ball back at their 40 after another short series for the Giants capped by a short punt by Brad Maynard. Minnesota advanced the ball 52 yards in 11 plays culminating in a Murray field goal from 26 yards early in the fourth quarter.
The Giants finally came back alive on offense as Kanell completed six passes, with one to Patten for 18 yards in a third-and-9 situation and the longest to Calloway for 21 yards. The 13-play, 74-yard drive reached the Minnesota five and Daluiso booted his fifth field goal of the day from 22 yards. It was a nine-point contest at 22-13 with just over seven minutes to go and things looked very favorable for the Giants.
After the teams traded punts, the Vikings, getting the ball back with the clock now down to 2:06, struck quickly following another short kick by Maynard. Cunningham connected with Reed for a 30-yard touchdown and Murray added the PAT to narrow the margin to two points. Minnesota successfully executed an onside kick that New York’s Calloway muffed and WR Chris Walsh recovered at his own 39.
Following a false start that moved the Vikings five yards farther back, Cunningham threw an incomplete pass but then hit TE Andrew Glover for 11 yards and Carter for 21 on a third down play. A pass interference penalty on the Giants advanced the ball to the New York 16 and Robert Smith gained 16 yards to set up a 24-yard field goal by Murray. In stunning fashion, the Vikings won by a score of 23-22.
It was the biggest comeback by a NFL road team in the postseason since 1972 and the first playoff win for the Vikings in nine years. Minnesota led in total yards (293 to 266) and first downs (16 to 13). Indeed, the Giants rushed for only 76 yards in 36 attempts, a factor in their inability to control the ball longer. The Vikings turned the ball over three times, all in the first half, to two for New York.
Randall Cunningham, who had such great difficulty in the first half, completed 15 of 36 passes for 203 yards with a touchdown and an interception and also rushed for 38 yards on 7 carries. Cris Carter had 6 catches for 83 yards and Jake Reed (pictured below) gained 89 yards and scored a TD on his 5 receptions. Robert Smith rushed for 40 yards on 16 attempts.
For the Giants, Danny Kanell was successful on 16 of 32 throws for 199 yards with a TD and none intercepted. Chris Calloway caught 6 passes for 53 yards while David Patten gained 86 yards on his 5 receptions. Brad Daluiso was a key performer with his five field goals in as many attempts.
“It was amazing how things unfolded for us at the end,” said Minnesota’s John Randle. “I’ve never been in a game where we’ve come back like this.”
The first win for the Vikings under Dennis Green didn’t lead immediately to a second – they were badly beaten by the 49ers the following week in the Divisional round. With Green still coaching the team, they surged to 15-1 in 1998 and made it to the NFC Championship game. New York fell back to 8-8 in ’98 and didn’t return to the postseason until 2000. By that time, Danny Kanell and Chris Calloway were long gone but Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer had become prominent contributors.