Derek E. Hingle/USA TODAY

Flashback Friday: Minnesota Vikings upset the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs

In 1988, the Minnesota Vikings pulled off one of the greatest playoff upsets in beating the highly favored 49ers, 36-24.

Each week during the 2015 season, Viking Update examines a past game against the Vikings' upcoming opponent. Some of the choices are obvious; others are not. However, all the games chosen stand the test of time.

This Week

Minnesota at San Francisco
Jan. 9, 1988

The Scenario

A tumultuous 1987 regular season culminated with the Vikings backing into the playoffs. Three defeats by the replacement Vikings during the NFL players strike erased a promising 2-0 start. The real Vikings’ return produced five wins in six games. However, Minnesota collapsed down the stretch, losing three of its final four contests. Only a Dallas victory over the Cardinals on the last Sunday of the season put the 8-7 Vikes in the playoffs. In the postseason's first round, Minnesota confounded conventional wisdom by dismantling New Orleans 44-10 in the Superdome. The mighty 13-2 San Francisco 49ers, 11-point favorites, were next on the Vikings’ unlikely journey.

The Game

A cool drizzle enveloped Candlestick Park as the partisan crowd draped in 49ers red anticipated a blowout. Their inkling of a one-sided affair proved to be correct. However, it was the purple gang who delivered the knockout.

From the outset, the Vikings moved the ball efficiently against a 49ers defense that hadn't surrendered more than 30 points in a game all season. Three first-half drives netted Minnesota 13 points, thanks to two short Chuck Nelson field goals and a 7-yard pass from Wade Wilson to backup tight end Carl Hilton. Those scores, as well as the team's second-half points, were all set up by the play of wide receiver Anthony Carter, who eviscerated the San Francisco secondary for a team-high 10 receptions and a postseason record 227 yards.

The Vikings defense, which harassed Hall of Famer Joe Montana throughout the afternoon, chipped in with a huge play toward the end of the second quarter. Cornerback Reggie Rutland (now known as Najee Mustafaa) jumped an out pattern on the left side and scampered 45 yards to paydirt with the interception.

In the third quarter, the 49ers returned the favor when Jeff Fuller intercepted a Wilson pass and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown. With the lead cut to 20-10, many in Vikings fandom prepared for a second-half collapse, which the Vikings perfected during their late-season swoon.

Instead, the steady play of Wilson, who ran for 30 yards and passed for 298, three additional Nelson field goals and the stifling Vikings defense allowed Minnesota to pull off one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history, 36-24.

Minnesota's dominance resulted in a chorus of boos for Montana, who was replaced in the third quarter by the more mobile Steve Young. The Vikings held all-time great receiver Jerry Rice to three catches for a measly 28 yards and limited explosive running back Roger Craig to 17 yards on the ground.  Chris Doleman led the new version of the Purple People Eaters with two sacks.

The 49ers also hurt themselves throughout the soggy afternoon. A pass interference penalty nullified Ronnie Lott's interception and return into Vikings territory at the end of the first quarter. Ray Wersching misfired on a 26-yard field goal attempt before halftime. And San Francisco committed eight penalties for 75 yards.

The Key Play

Cornerback Reggie Rutland's 45-yard interception return for a touchdown stretched Minnesota's lead to 20-3 in the second quarter.

Vikings Player of the Game

Wide receiver Anthony Carter was a human highlight reel with his record-setting 227 yards on 10 receptions. From slants to deep routes to acrobatic catches, Carter did it all. He even took a reverse for 30 yards. Carter accounted for 257 of Minnesota's 397 yards.

Honorable Mention

Beleaguered kicker Chuck Nelson endured a miserable regular season as he connected on just one of eight attempts beyond 40 yards. Despite wet turf, Nelson connected on all five of his field goal attempts against the 49ers, including a 40-yarder and one from 46 yards. His 15 points were critical in the 12-point victory.

Post-Game Chatter

(via Frank Litsky in the Jan. 11, 1988 edition of The New York Times):

Michael Carter (49ers nose tackle)

"They impressed me. They came out and brought it to us. I think all of us were looking down the road, and that's unfortunate."

Steve Jordan (Vikings tight end)

"We're playing better longer now. We're putting together some 60 minutes of prime ball." 

Present-Day Reflection

Leo Lewis (Minnesota Wide Receiver 1981-89; 1990-91)

  • "Anytime you are a home team in the playoffs and have a season like they had, they had to be confident that if they executed, they would win.
  • "We had underachieved during the regular season. We did have a good team with Pro Bowlers, and we had a number of guys play at a high level in the playoffs.
  • "The week before the game, we practiced outside in Arizona to prepare. That really helped us to prepare to play outside and on grass."


The Vikings traveled to Washington the following week for the NFC Championship Game and a chance to go to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season. Minnesota gamely battled the Redskins and had a golden opportunity to send the duel into overtime. However, Darrin Nelson couldn't snag a fourth-down Wade Wilson pass at the goal line in the waning seconds and the Vikings fell 17-10.


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