Flashback Friday: Minnesota Vikings 30, Detroit Lions 21 (1977)

The Minnesota Vikings needed a win in the 1977 season finale to make the playoffs and the aging Purple People Eaters got it in Detroit.

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 Detroit
Dec. 17, 1977

The Scenario

The Minnesota Vikings were navigating uncharted waters heading into the regular-season finale at the Silverdome in 1977. The Vikings normally secured the NFC Central Division crown prior to Thanksgiving. But a week before Christmas, this aging team didn’t know if it would enjoy a playoff present. Five weeks earlier, quarterback Fran Tarkenton suffered a broken leg in a blowout over the Cincinnati Bengals. Veteran backup Bob Lee and rookie gunslinger Tommy Kramer had to fill the gaping void at the most important position. The Lee-Kramer combination and the sensational running of Chuck Foreman helped Minnesota split its four post-Tarkenton games, leaving the team with an 8-5 record. A win against the 6-7 Lions would guarantee Bud Grant’s club its fifth straight division title and ninth in 10 years. A loss, coupled with wins by Chicago and Washington, would leave the Vikings out of the playoffs for the first time since 1972. In that scenario, the Bears would claim the division championship and the Redskins would secure the NFC’s lone wild card berth. Minnesota was installed as a 5.5-point favorite for the nationally televised Saturday evening game, presented as a special edition of ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”

The Game

Some Vikings fans most likely groaned when they saw Bob Lee under center at the Silverdome. Two weeks prior, Bud Grant pulled the veteran in the second half as the Vikings trailed San Francisco 24-7. Rookie Tommy Kramer led a remarkable comeback in the 28-27 Minnesota victory. A week later, the magic vanished for Kramer in a 35-13 defeat at Oakland. Thus, Grant went back to Lee, who rewarded his coach’s faith with one of his best days as an NFL QB.

Initially, Detroit quarterback Gary Danielson grabbed the spotlight, hitting David Hill on a screen pass that the tight end took 61 yards for the team’s longest pass play of the season. A few moments later, the two connected again, this time from 20 yards out, to give the Lions an early 7-0 lead.

The Vikings calmed the nerves of an anxious Purple Nation by responding with an impressive drive of their own. Chuck Foreman, arguably the best multi-dimensional running back of the 1970s, weaved his way through the Lions for runs of 18, 11 and 27 yards in his first three carries. A 19-yard pass that two Lions deflected into the hands of Bob Grim at the 1-yard line set up Foreman for the tying TD plunge.

Minnesota took the lead for good early in the second quarter. A tough defensive stand forced Detroit to punt from deep in its own end. The Vikings’ Manfred Moore returned the punt 28 yards to put his team at the Lions 27. When the drive stalled, straight-on kicker Fred Cox booted a 26-yard field goal for a 10-7 advantage. That lead grew by the end of the half, thanks in part to another strong defensive effort. Desperately seeking a spark, the Lions tried to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 44, but the graying Purple People Eaters stuffed Dexter Bussey for no gain. Two plays later, Lee hit Ahmad Rashad with a 48-yard touchdown pass and a 17-7 cushion.

The lead was just 10 points, but the Vikings were dominating. Foreman ran for 127 yards in the first half alone. The Minnesota defense, which struggled for much of the season’s second half, stymied the Lions, holding them to 50 yards rushing for the game and forcing three turnovers.

The Vikings erased any lingering doubts about the outcome early in the third quarter after linebacker Fred McNeill recovered a Bussey fumble. On the next play, Lee tossed his second TD pass of the night, this one a 29-yarder[1]  to Sammy White. Up 24-7, Minnesota relaxed on the ensuing kickoff. Detroit’s Eddie Payton took advantage with a 98-yard touchdown return up the left sideline. The rare Silverdome celebration for the 78,572 fans didn’t last long as the Vikings came back with 68-yard, nine-play drive, capped by a Foreman 5-yard touchdown run. The scored remained 30-14 until the waning moments when Payton, the brother of Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown to make the final 30-21 for Minnesota. The Vikings clinched yet another division title and trip to the postseason with their 9-5 record. If the Purple Gang had lost, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs, as both Chicago and Washington posted wins the following day.

Key Play

Bob Lee connecting with Ahmad Rashad on a 48-yard TD pass. The scoring strike gave Minnesota a 17-7 second-quarter lead and came moments after the Vikings defense stopped the Lions on fourth-and-1.

Vikings Player of the Game

Chuck Foreman was electric, rushing for 156 yards and two touchdowns in tying a team record with 33 attempts. The performance pushed Foreman past the 1,000-yard barrier for the third consecutive season. He finished 1977 with 1,113 yards.

Purple Honorable Mention

Quarterback Bob Lee responded to his recent benching by completing 11 of 16 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Ahmad Rashad caught eight of those passes for 139 yards and one touchdown.

Post-Game Chatter

(via the Associated Press)

Minnesota’s Bud Grant on pulling Chuck Foreman from the game for most of the fourth quarter: “We didn’t want him to get hurt,” said Grant, citing “marginal incidents” of Lions taking semi-late hits when Foreman was down.

Fun Facts

The Vikings victory was their 18th in 20 games against the Lions.

Eddie Payton became just the sixth man in NFL history to score on a kick and punt return in the same game. Three years later, Payton would join the Vikings and return a kickoff for a TD against the Raiders on “Monday Night Football.”

The Aftermath

The following Saturday, Minnesota shocked the favored Los Angeles Rams, 14-7, in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game became known as the “Mud Bowl” as heavy rains turned the LA Coliseum turf into brown soup. Minnesota’s season ended in the NFC Championship game at Dallas. The eventual Super Bowl champs were too much for the depleted Vikings, winning 23-6.


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