December 25, 2010

1989: Karlis & Vikings Defense Sink the Bengals, Secure Playoff Spot

The two teams meeting at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis on Christmas night, December 25, 1989, were both trying to secure playoff spots in the season’s final week of play. The Minnesota Vikings, under Head Coach Jerry Burns, had been tied with Green Bay atop the NFC Central at 9-6 and, with the Packers having won the day before, needed a victory to win the division (they had the advantage over Green Bay in the division record tiebreaker and would not be able to gain wild card entry with a second place finish). The visiting Cincinnati Bengals, coached by Sam Wyche, were 8-7 and couldn’t win the AFC Central, but still had a chance at a wild card spot.

The Vikings had been underachieving contenders the previous two years, considering the talent on the roster, and had swung a huge deal during the season to obtain RB Herschel Walker from Dallas (ultimately, the Cowboys profited far more than Minnesota). But while unbeatable in the Metrodome, they had gone 2-6 on the road, including an overtime loss the previous week at Cleveland. After making an initial splash, Walker proved to be ill-suited in an offense which further suffered from QB Wade Wilson’s inconsistency and injury-plagued performances by WR Anthony Carter and TE Steve Jordan, who had held out during training camp (contract issues were a significant behind-the-scenes problem). Defense had kept the Vikings alive, in particular the play of DE Chris Doleman (pictured at top) and DT Keith Millard, who led an outstanding pass rush.

Cincinnati had won the AFC Championship in 1988, losing a close Super Bowl contest to the 49ers, but FB Ickey Woods, the key to the ground game in ’88, went down for the year in the season’s second contest. After getting off to a 4-1 start, the Bengals played inconsistently despite the presence of QB Boomer Esiason (pictured at left), wide receivers Eddie Brown and Tim McGee, TE Rodney Holman, and RB James Brooks. The undersized defensive line had difficulty mounting a pass rush, although the backfield, led by SS David Fulcher, was formidable.

The Vikings started off well as Wilson passed to RB Rick Fenney for a 26-yard gain on the game’s first play from scrimmage and proceeded to drive 65 yards in 10 plays, culminating in a 31-yard field goal by Rich Karlis. Following a Cincinnati punt, Minnesota marched to another Karlis field goal, of 37 yards, and held a 6-0 lead after one quarter.

It appeared that Minnesota might take decisive control in the second quarter as Karlis booted two more field goals, from 22 and 42 yards, and in between, following an interception of an Esiason pass by safety Darrell Fullington, Wilson tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Fenney. The score was 19-0 midway through the period. The Bengals finally got on the board, however, thanks to a 10-play, 77-yard drive that was capped by Esiason’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Brown.

Cincinnati got the ball back once more in the last two minutes of the half, and Esiason came out throwing but, after the Bengals had driven into Minnesota territory at the 43, he was intercepted by LB Scott Studwell. A 50-yard pass play from Wilson to WR Hassan Jones got the Vikings down to the Cincinnati seven, and Karlis, who had already tied the existing league record with a seven-field goal performance earlier in the season, booted his fifth, from 24 yards. It was 22-7 at the half, but could have been far more lopsided.

Three plays into the third quarter, the margin narrowed as Esiason connected with Holman for a 65-yard touchdown. While it was now 22-14, both offenses bogged down, and the Vikings sacked Esiason three times and forced two fumbles. After the second fumble recovery, Minnesota drove to the Cincinnati 15 but Fenney fumbled and DE Jason Buck recovered for the Bengals to snuff out the threat.

Near the end of the period, Vikings LB Mark Dusbabek intercepted Esiason at the Cincinnati 43, but the ensuing possession failed to add to the Minnesota lead when, now into the fourth quarter, Karlis missed a 52-yard field goal that hit the right upright and bounced away.

The Bengals drove down the field, converting a third-and-fifteen situation with an Esiason completion to McGee for 18 yards. Five plays later, the quarterback threw to RB Craig Taylor for an 18-yard touchdown, and with the successful extra point by Jim Breech, Minnesota’s lead was now down to one point at 22-21.

It was the turn of the Vikings to put together a long drive and, helped along by three penalties on the Bengals, they got down to the one yard line. On a fourth-and-goal play, Coach Burns passed up the easy field goal and chose to go for the touchdown - he was rewarded when Wilson completed a pass to reserve TE Brent Novoselsky for a TD. The successful PAT by Karlis put Minnesota up by eight points.

The teams traded punts and, with just over three minutes remaining, Cincinnati took over on its own five yard line and began to move methodically down the field. Esiason was successful on his first eight passes and a 17-yard completion to McGee on fourth-and-two took the Bengals to the Minnesota 22 yard line. The drive stalled, however, and an apparent fourth-down scoring pass to Brown was wiped out by a penalty. The Vikings held on to win by a score of 29-21.

The Bengals outgained Minnesota (309 yards to 274) and had the edge in first downs (26 to 24), but also gave up five turnovers, as opposed to one by the Vikings. Minnesota’s pass rushers sacked Esiason six times (Chris Doleman accounted for four of them), although the Bengals got to Wilson on four occasions (LB Reggie Williams had two).

Wade Wilson (pictured at right) completed 19 of 35 passes for 303 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Anthony Carter caught 7 passes for 118 yards and Hassan Jones added another 90 yards on four receptions. Rick Fenney led the team in rushing with 62 yards on 17 attempts and also grabbed 5 passes for another 51 yards and a TD. Herschel Walker gained just 43 yards on 12 carries.

Boomer Esiason, playing catchup almost all the way and being hit often, went to the air 54 times and had 31 completions for 367 yards with three touchdowns but also three interceptions. James Brooks had a typically productive day leading the team with 93 yards on 15 carries and also catching 12 passes for 66 more yards. Eddie Brown gained 109 yards on 6 catches with a TD and Rodney Holman contributed 84 yards on his three receptions that included a touchdown.

Minnesota won the NFC Central with the resulting 10-6 record but lost badly to the 49ers in the Divisional playoff. At 8-8, Cincinnati ended up not only out of the postseason but at the bottom of the AFC Central (the three other teams all made it into the playoffs, although Houston and Pittsburgh were only a game better than the Bengals at 9-7. The Steelers would have been eliminated had Cincinnati won).

Boomer Esiason was the top-rated passer in the AFC (92.1 rating) and also threw the most touchdown passes (28). He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year.

James Brooks ran for a career-high 1239 yards on 221 carries for an AFC-leading 5.6 average (the highest among NFL running backs as Eagles QB Randall Cunningham led the league with a 6.0 average). His 1545 yards from scrimmage ranked fifth in the NFL. He, too, went to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive time and third of an eventual four.

Chris Doleman led the NFL with 21 sacks and was a consensus first team All-NFL selection as well as being named to the Pro Bowl for the third (of an eventual four) straight years. Teammate Keith Millard ranked third with 18 as Minnesota ended up recording a total of 71 sacks, the second-most in NFL history.

Despite playing in just 13 games, the barefoot-kicking Rich Karlis (pictured at left) had a career-year in leading the NFL with 31 field goals, out of 39 attempts. He had played seven seasons with the Broncos but was a late preseason cut following a contract dispute. Following his big year, Karlis held out again in 1990 and the Vikings, after picking up Donald Igwebuike off waivers from Tampa Bay, chose to let him go. He signed on with the Lions during the season, covering for injured veteran Eddie Murray for six games, but was let go when Murray returned. It proved to be his final year in the NFL.