The NFC Divisional Playoff game on December 22, 1973 featured the Minnesota Vikings, first place finishers in the NFC Central at 12-2, hosting the Washington Redskins, who placed second in the NFC East with a 10-4 record and qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card entry.
The Vikings were in their seventh season under Head Coach Bud Grant and back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus in 1972. Prior to that they had won four straight division titles, but lost their last two Divisional round games. QB Fran Tarkenton (pictured above), an original Viking, returned to the club in ’72 and was making his first postseason appearance in his 13th year as a pro. Tarkenton was talented and known for his scrambling style, but still had something to prove to critics who questioned his ability to come up a winner in big games. WR John Gilliam was a fine receiver and the addition of rookie FB Chuck Foreman helped both the running and passing attack. The tough defense remained the key to the team’s success, in particular the line with ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen.
The Redskins, coached by George Allen, were the defending NFC Champions and still a very strong, veteran-laden club. Gritty QB Bill Kilmer directed an offense that included the running of HB Larry Brown and a strong receiving corps with wide receivers Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson and TE Jerry Smith. The defense was strong and adept at pressuring opposing quarterbacks. While Washington was also known for the quality of its special teams play, PK Curt Knight caused concern with his erratic tendencies. In addition, Kilmer had been hospitalized during the previous week due to a stomach disorder.
There were 45,475 fans in attendance at Metropolitan Stadium on a day with temperatures in the twenties and a seven mph wind. The field had been cleared of snow and dyed green to hide the wear. Minnesota came out throwing, but a Fran Tarkenton bomb to an open John Gilliam just grazed the receiver’s finger tips, which was the closest the Vikings came to pulling off a big play in the early going. The Redskins missed a scoring opportunity in the first quarter when they drove from their 14 into Minnesota territory but Curt Knight failed on a 17-yard field goal attempt.
Later in the period, Knight again missed a field goal attempt, coming up short from 49 yards. The Vikings were stymied on offense and didn’t register a first down until two minutes into the second quarter, but they finally came up with a big play when Tarkenton completed a pass to HB Oscar Reed for a gain of 50 yards and that set up a 19-yard field goal by Fred Cox.
With 3:30 remaining in the first half, the Redskins got a break when CB Bobby Bryant fumbled a punt and HB Bob Brunet recovered for Washington at the Minnesota 21. Three plays later, which included a pass from Bill Kilmer to Charley Taylor for 17 yards, Larry Brown (pictured at left) ran for a three-yard touchdown. Knight added the extra point for a 7-3 lead.
The Vikings advanced into field goal position as Tarkenton completed passes to WR Carroll Dale and Chuck Foreman, but an interception inside the ten yard line snuffed out the threat and the score remained unchanged at the half.
During halftime, Minnesota DE Carl Eller delivered an emotional speech to his teammates, who had played without apparent emotion during the first half, saying that they had come “too damn far” and were “embarrassing ourselves”. To accent the point, he proceeded to break apart the team’s blackboard. The tirade made an impression and the Vikings showed more fire in the second half.
Early in the third quarter, Reed, taking advantage of the defense’s keying on Chuck Foreman, broke six tackles on a 46-yard carry that set up a two-yard TD run by FB Bill Brown. Cox added the point after and the home team was ahead by 10-7.
Meanwhile, the Redskins were now without CB Pat Fischer, who suffered cracked ribs in the second quarter and was unable to continue. He was replaced by DB Speedy Duncan, also experienced but typically a kick returner who was more comfortable at safety.
Washington managed to tie the score before the period was over with Curt Knight’s 52-yard field goal that matched the then-league playoff record. Knight kicked another field goal, from 42 yards, on the first play of the fourth quarter, and the visitors held a 13-10 edge.
The Vikings proceeded to advance 71 yards in eight plays concluding with a Tarkenton pass to Gilliam, who beat Duncan for a 28-yard touchdown. Cox converted and Minnesota was back in the lead by 17-13. On Washington’s next offensive play, CB Nate Wright intercepted a Kilmer pass and returned it 26 yards to the Redskins’ eight. Two plays later, it was Tarkenton to Gilliam again for a TD, this time from six yards out and after the nimble quarterback scrambled out of trouble, running to his left and then right before finding the receiver open in the right corner of the end zone. Cox added the point after and, in the space of 1:05, the Vikings had scored twice to take a 24-13 lead.
The Redskins managed to get on the board again following DB Ken Stone’s block of a Mike Eischeid punt. Kilmer passed to WR Roy Jefferson for a 28-yard touchdown with 5:28 left to play and Knight converted to close the margin to four points.
The Vikings were able to use up four minutes on a series that concluded with Cox kicking a 30-yard field goal. Washington fought back in the remaining time as Kilmer completed three passes, but the drive came to an end at the Minnesota 42 on a fourth down incompletion. Minnesota won by a final score of 27-20.
The statistics were fairly even. The Vikings led in total yards (359 to 314) while Washington had the edge in first downs (18 to 17). Each team turned the ball over twice. The game was almost penalty-free, with Minnesota drawing the only two flags at a minimal cost of nine yards.
Fran Tarkenton completed 16 of 28 passes for 222 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, and was at his best as the Vikings took command in the second half, when he hit on eight of ten throws and both TDs. John Gilliam had just two catches for 36 yards, but they accounted for both touchdowns. Oscar Reed (pictured below) rushed for 95 yards on 17 carries and caught 5 passes for 76 more yards. Chuck Foreman contributed 40 yards on 11 attempts and had three pass receptions for 23 yards.
For the Redskins, Bill Kilmer was successful on 13 of 24 throws for 159 yards and a TD along with an interception. Larry Brown, who was playing with injured ribs, gained 115 yards on 29 rushing attempts and scored a touchdown. Roy Jefferson caught 6 passes for 84 yards and a TD and Charley Taylor contributed four receptions for 56 yards.
“Sometimes they’re not concentrating on me,” explained Oscar Reed, who received a game ball for his performance. “Since early in the season they’ve been keying on Chuck Foreman. I’m not the world’s greatest pass catcher or runner, but given a little room, I’ll use what I’ve got.”
The Vikings went on to defeat Dallas for the NFC Championship before losing to Miami in the Super Bowl. Washington came back in 1974 to again go 10-4 and reach the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Redskins lost in the Divisional round, this time to the Rams.