November 26, 2016

1978: Vikings Tie Packers in NFC Central Showdown

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers were in a battle for control in the NFC Central as they faced off on November 26, 1978.

The Vikings, coached by Bud Grant, had been the dominant team in the division and had a string of five consecutive first place finishes on the line. 38-year-old QB Fran Tarkenton (pictured above) was still a formidable competitor, even if he lacked arm strength, and there were capable wide receivers in Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. FB Chuck Foreman was showing signs of wear while HB Rickey Young was proving to be a productive receiver out of the backfield. The once-formidable defense was slipping as aging became a factor. Following a slow 3-4 start, they had reeled off four straight wins and were at 7-5 coming into Green Bay, a team they had already beaten at home.

Green Bay had gotten off to a fast start under Head Coach Bart Starr, reaching 7-2 before losing three straight contests to also be 7-5. Second-year QB David Whitehurst had taken over for the injured Lynn Dickey with promising results, HB Terdell Middleton was a surprisingly effective ground gainer, and rookie WR James Lofton added a deep threat to the attack. The defense was especially effective at rushing opposing passers.

There were 51,737 fans in attendance at Lambeau Field, where snow surrounded the playing field. The home team immediately ran into trouble on its first play from scrimmage when Terdell Middleton fumbled and Minnesota DE Jim Marshall recovered at the Green Bay 9. The Vikings didn’t reach the end zone, picking up seven yards in three plays, but took the early 3-0 lead on a 19-yard Rick Danmeier field goal.

From the beginning, defensive ends Mike Butler and Ezra Johnson consistently put pressure on Minnesota’s Fran Tarkenton, thus keeping the visitors in check, although Green Bay was also unable to move the ball effectively. Late in the second quarter, and following an interception by LB John Anderson, the Packers finally put together a long drive of 70 yards in 12 plays. David Whitehurst had key completions to FB Barty Smith for 12 yards, Middleton for 16, and James Lofton for 24 yards to the Minnesota three. Middleton (pictured at left) crashed over from a yard out for a touchdown and Marcol added the extra point to give Green Bay a 7-3 halftime lead.

The Vikings got a break in the third quarter when Middleton again fumbled in Green Bay territory, but they failed to capitalize when Danmeier missed a 32-yard field goal attempt. Late in the period, CB Mike McCoy of the Packers recovered a fumble by Rickey Young at the Green Bay 49. Whitehurst passed to TE Rich McGeorge for 20 yards and to Middleton for 11 as the Packers drove 49 yards in 10 plays. But on the first play of the fourth quarter, Middleton lost a yard in a third down situation at the Minnesota one and the Packers settled for a 19-yard Marcol field goal that nevertheless extended the lead to 10-3.

Another Packer fumble, this time by Barty Smith, gave the Vikings the ball at the Green Bay 25 with 5:27 left in regulation, but they were unable to move and Tarkenton’s fourth down pass into the end zone fell incomplete. With two minutes remaining in regulation, the Vikings had one more shot and put together a 57-yard drive in 11 plays, all passes. They converted a fourth-and-three play at the Green Bay 29 when Tarkenton connected with Young along the sideline for six yards and, facing fourth-and-six at the 19, Tarkenton found Sammy White for 14 yards. With ten seconds left on the clock, Tarkenton threw to Ahmad Rashad, who made a leaping catch for a five-yard touchdown and Danmeier’s point after tied the score.

Following the ensuing kickoff, the Packers had one last desperate shot in regulation and came through with the longest pass play of the game as Whitehurst connected with WR Aundra Thompson for 50 yards, but he was brought down at the Minnesota six and time expired.

Both teams had opportunities to win in overtime. At one point, facing third-and-short at midfield, Barty Smith was stopped and the Packers punted. The Vikings advanced from their 21 to the Green Bay four in seven plays, helped along by Tarkenton completions to Rashad for 18 yards, TE Bob Tucker for 14, and Young for 25, but Danmeier failed on a 21-yard field goal. With time running out in the extra period, Green Bay DT Dave Roller recovered a fumble at the Minnesota 43. But with 17 seconds left on the clock, Marcol came on to attempt a 40-yard field goal that missed well to the left. The final verdict was a 10-10 tie.

The Packers led in total yards (318 to 293) and also had the edge in first downs (16 to 15). The sloppy contest featured eight turnovers, with five by the Vikings and three for Green Bay. Missed field goals hurt both clubs, with Rick Danmeier missing two of three and Chester Marcol booting one and failing on another at the end. Green Bay’s David Beverly had a poor punting game, averaging just 30.5 yards on 10 kicks while Greg Coleman of the Vikings was far more effective, averaging 44.0 yards on six punts, and that affected the battle for field position.

Fran Tarkenton, who passed for only 35 yards in the first three quarters, completed 20 of 37 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown, but also gave up four interceptions. Chuck Foreman was held to 52 yards on 24 carries and caught five passes for 35 yards. Rickey Young (pictured at right) contributed a team-leading 6 pass receptions for 63 yards as well as 35 yards on 14 rushing attempts. Ahmad Rashad ended up catching four passes for 38 yards and a TD.

For the Packers, David Whitehurst was successful on 11 of 23 throws for 175 yards with no TDs or interceptions. Terdell Middleton ran the ball 39 times for 110 yards and a touchdown and also had 20 yards on two pass receptions. Barty Smith had three catches for 28 yards along with his 39 yards on 12 carries and Rich McGeorge also caught three passes, for 35 yards. With his long reception at the end of regulation, Aundra Franklin led the team’s receivers with 68 yards on two catches. James Lofton managed just one reception for 24 yards.

“This was a darn fine effort on the part of our football team,” said Coach Starr of the Packers. “I’m proud of them. They played their hearts out and it’s a shame we didn’t win.”

“I thought we should have won,” said Fran Tarkenton. “But the tie doesn’t hurt us a bit.”

The tie left the clubs with identical 7-5-1 records but gave Minnesota the advantage in tiebreakers due to the better head-to-head record (1-0-1). It proved to be decisive as the teams remained even the rest of the way, winning the next week and then losing the final two games. At 8-7-1, the Vikings were Central Division champs while Green Bay was in second and out of the playoff picture. Minnesota lost to the Rams in the Divisional playoff round.

In his last season, Fran Tarkenton achieved career highs in pass attempts (572), completions (345), yards (3468), and on the downside, interceptions (32) which all also topped the NFL.  Rickey Young led the league with 88 pass receptions, for 704 yards and five TDs, while also rushing for 417 yards and another touchdown.