The NFL season has grown into a mutation of one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Fans saw history made seemingly every week of the season, and Wild Card weekend kept that trend going.
The Divisional Round of the NFL postseason is my favorite weekend of the season. This year’s matchups provide fans who appreciate reminiscing about playoff games from yesteryear with a bevy of memories.
Saturday, Jan. 11: No. 6 Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers, 4:35 p.m. NBC
While this is the first foray into the postseason for Jimmy Garappolo’s San Francisco 49ers, hosting divisional round playoff games is not rare for this franchise.
Saturday marks the 15th time the 49ers will receive a first-round bye and home playoff game. Saturday also marks the fifth time they will be taking on the Minnesota Vikings.
San Francisco has won three of the four previous matchups, culminating in a memorable three-year stretch from 1987-89.
The 1988 & 1989 49ers avenged one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history, outscoring the Vikings 75-22 in consecutive divisional round matchups. The 49ers won their third & fourth Super Bowl titles of the 1980s in those seasons. Despite accomplishing that significant feat, the sting of the 1987 Divisional Round playoff loss at home still left a mark.
The 1987 49ers were a result of consecutive playoff beatings by the New York Giants at the Meadowlands in 1985 & 1986. San Francisco lost those games by a combined score of 66-6.
The Giants slapped the 49ers silly with their physical play. The 1986 Divisional Round matchup saw Joe Montana get knocked unconscious by Giants defensive lineman Jim Burt on the same play Lawrence Taylor returned his pass attempt 34-yards for a TD.
In 1987 the 49ers featured a re-energized Joe Montana at QB. After appearing in just eight games and throwing one more INT than TD in 1986, Montana came ready to play in 1987.
Montana threw a career-high 31 TD in only 13 games (the players walked out after Week 2 & the NFL used replacement players for three games). Jerry Rice made people forget about his fumble on the opening drive of their playoff loss at New York the year before, by setting an NFL record with 22 TD receptions (in just 12 games!).
The 1987 49ers finished first in total yards on offense and defense. They won their games by an average of 13.8 PPG. Their defense was physical and aggressive.
The 1987 Minnesota Vikings finished with a record of 8-7, earning them the final playoff spot in the NFC. The Vikings quickly showed their postseason run would be memorable, easily defeating the New Orleans Saints 44-10 in the franchise’s first postseason game. The Saints finished 12-3, owning the second-best record in the NFL.
Anthony Carter was in his third season with the Vikings, coming over from the USFL. Carter made a name for himself at the University of Michigan & the Michigan Panthers (USFL) by making big plays.
Carter set the NCAA record for yards per play (17.4). He scored the game-winning TD in the first USFL Championship Game in 1983, helping Michigan upset Philadelphia. During the 1987 regular season, Carter led the NFL in yards per reception (23.4), becoming just the fourth WR since the merger to reach that number.
Carter kept his penchant for playing well in big moments during the Vikings win over the Saints, setting an NFL record for most punt return yards (143 – since broken by Allen Rossum of ATL in 2005). and giving the Vikings a lead they never relinquished with his 84-yard punt return.
Against San Francisco, Carter took his game to another level. Carter finished with 227 receiving yards on ten receptions while adding 51 yards rushing (30) & returning (21). Overall, his 278 total yards from scrimmage ranks as the third-highest total for an NFL postseason game since the merger.
After putting together his most impressive regular season in his career, Montana struggled in the first half, completing just 12 of 26 passes for 109 yards. The final blow for Montana occurred just before halftime. Trailing 13-3, Montana was intercepted by Najee Mustafaa, who returned it 45 yards to give the Vikings a 20-3 halftime lead.
Bill Walsh then did the unimaginable. He replaced Montana to start the second half with Steve Young. Keep in mind, at this point in his career, Young was not the NFL MVP. He was not playoff-tested. He was a talented QB who had a lot to prove. Young did his best, completing 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards and a TD, while also running for 72 yards and a TD. Walsh’s move set the stage for the QB controversy that started during training camp in 1988.
The Vikings 36-24 victory shocked everyone around the NFL, including Niners owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. who made changes to the 49ers front office. Bill Walsh, winner of Super Bowls XVI and XIX, would later call the game “the most traumatic experience I’ve had in sports.” Asked immediately after the game, if Walsh would be back as head coach, DeBartolo said, “Until you hear otherwise.” He stayed on as coach, but Walsh was no longer team president.
For Anthony Carter and the Vikings, their season ended the next week in Washington. Carter finished with 642 yards from scrimmage during their 1987 playoff run, a record that still stands for a single postseason.