History Repeating?

Thirteen years ago today, the Vikings won the NFC Central title by playing against the San Francisco 49er junior varsity in a year where the Niners had home field wrapped up and were on their way to a championship. Thirteen years later, they find themselves in an eerily similar situation -- just on the wrong side of the fence.

What goes around comes around.

There are plenty of Vikings fans that are more than a little bit miffed at word out of Dallas that the Cowboys are likely to set several of their key starters for most or all of Sunday's game with the Redskins – a game the Vikings need Dallas to win in order for the Vikes to have a shot at the playoffs. But for Vikings fans with a memory, they'll remember that 13 years ago, the shoe was on the other foot.

On Dec. 26, the Vikings were playing host to the 49ers in the regular-season finale against the 49ers – a team that had a star-studded cast that had a 13-2 record and included such studs as Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ricky Watters and Deion Sanders. At the time, the Vikings were 9-6 and, while they knew they were going to make the playoffs, there were no guarantees that they would win the then-NFC Central Division title. In a strange year in which all three wild card teams (there were three divisions in each conference in 1994), were going to come from the NFC North, a loss to the 49ers in the final week of the regular season would have created a four-way tie in the NFC Central in which the Packers would have won the division title.

But, the 49ers had already wrapped up home field throughout the playoffs and had little to nothing to play for, while the Vikings had more than enough reason to play hard. Not only would a win give them the division title, but it would give them the No. 3 seed – which meant that, if they could win their opening-round playoff game at home, they could avoid the 49ers juggernaut until the NFC Championship Game.

On their first offensive drive of the game, the Niners cut through the Vikings defense with ease, as Young, Rice and Watters all took turns putting up big plays to give San Francisco a 7-0 lead. At that point, all of the key starters on both sides of the ball were told to sit down – their day was over. What followed was a game that had the Vikings' starting team against the 49ers B squad. The quarterback? Elvis Grbac. The lead receiver? Tight end Ted Popson. The result? A 21-14 win by the Vikings that gave us the NFC Central title and the 49ers a meaningless blemish on a season that would end with a blowout win over the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing in the rules of the NFL that require a team to put forth its best effort when their playoff standing is already assured. In the NFC, the Cowboys and Packers know they have byes. By virtue of a Week 1 win over the Bucs, the Seahawks are Tampa Bay are locked in at seeds Nos. 3 and 4 and even the Giants are locked in at No. 5. There is no playoff-positioning reason for any of these teams to put their best foot forward in Week 17, because, thanks to the lay of the schedule and the records, they have locked down their own playoff future.

That can't be viewed as good news for the Vikings. Browns fans can sympathize with the Vikings' plight because they find themselves in a very similar situation. The Titans need a win to get into the postseason and they play Sunday night against a Colts team that has locked down the No. 2 seed and has nothing to play for – much less risk stars like Peyton Manning getting injured prior to the playoffs. The Colts will likely "pull a 49ers" and give their starters one or two series at most, get them to the sidelines and get ready for two weeks of prep time for whomever survives the first round of the playoffs. The Browns need to win their game to keep their playoff hopes alive, but the Colts B team will face a tall task in trying to stop a Titans team knowing that if they win, they're in the playoffs.

Back in '94, the Vikings would have had little to no chance against a 49ers team that dismantled everything in its path to a title that year. But, thanks to the lack of rules that require teams from putting their best foot forward in a "meaningless" game, they were able to be crowned division champs. The euphoria was short-lived as the Vikings stunk up the Metrodome later that week in a 35-18 loss to the Bears on New Year's Day, but their division title still stands on the books and can't be taken away – a title they almost surely would not have won had it not been for the Niners laying down after the first quarter.

For Vikings fans who are upset that the Redskins seemingly are being handed a playoff spot on a silver platter, just remember two things. First, they still have to beat the Cowboys, their most hated rival that won't simply lay down and let the ‘Skins get in the playoffs. Second, the Vikings have been on the other end of the silver-platter treatment.

What goes around comes around.


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