I get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever the Vikings play the Arizona Cardinals. Why, you ask? Well, sit back and let me tell you an amazing story. It’s a story that most Vikings fans know the ending to, yet few of them are aware of the full story and its deeper meaning, which, when realized, makes the heartbreaking ending that much more crushingly painful. Enjoy!
A Choke of Genius
When you think of all the colossal chokes the Vikings have had throughout their existence, you likely picture one of their many Super Bowl or NFC title game implosions. But what if I were to tell you the most mind-blowing choke perpetrated by the purple was not one of these big games, that there was a feat our beloved Vikings pulled off that gets so little attention, is so astonishingly underrated, that to ignore it is akin to giving Einstein credit for all of his discoveries except the Theory of Relativity. That feat would be the entire 2003 season, when the Minnesota Vikings led the NFC North division for every single second of the regular season, and still didn’t make the playoffs.
Sound impossible, doesn’t it? But do not for a second underestimate the ability of the Vikings to blow it when it counts, for this is a franchise that has accumulated a sky-high pile of boners that includes four Super Bowl losses, the Herschel Walker trade (one of the worst in NFL history if not all of sports), and four NFC title game losses since 1987, each one lost in spectacularly idiotic fashion. (Most notably the debacle in 1998 when the 15-1 Vikings lost at home to Atlanta after Gary Anderson shanked a field goal after not missing one the entire season.) These were all painful and moronic, yet none of them defied the laws of probability the way the reality-bending 2003 squad did.
Mike Tice was in his second year as head coach, and the deadly combination of Duante Culpepper to Randy Moss was still making regular connections. When the first second ticked off the clock in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers, the Vikings were 0-0, technically tied for first with the other three teams in the NFC North. The Vikings started off the season by beating the Packers—their most likely competition for the division crown—and finished week one tied with Detroit for first place. In week two, the Lions lost and the Vikings won, giving them sole possession of first. The Vikes then followed that up with four consecutive wins, pushing their record to a glorious 6-0 that was made even stronger by a 3-0 division record and a 5-0 conference record. The 3-3 Packers and the 1-5 Bears and Lions were becoming hard to see in the rear view mirror. So, if you were a Vikings fan after week six you were already planning your playoff parties and feeling that same magic of the 15-1 1998 season, except you felt that this time they would finally win it all. They had to. They just had to.
But then the reverse purple magic kicked in, and the Vikings lost their next four games. Any four game losing streak at this point would be a swift kick to the groin, but what made this stretch particularly vexing was the teams they lost to: the Packers, Giants, Chargers, and Raiders. While a loss to the hated Packers was maddening yet understandable, the other three losses were especially bizarre given that the other three teams were über-crappy and would all go on to finish the season at a dismal 4-12. How the hell was a team that had been flying high at 6-0 now losing games to three of the worst teams in the league? This inexplicable free fall had allowed the 5-5 Packers to climb to within one game of the reeling Vikings.
The schizophrenic pattern of not knowing which Vikings team would show up went from happening over long stretches of games to now being compressed week to week. To wit, they beat the Lions, got pasted by the Rams, crushed Seattle, and then somehow lost to the awful Bears. The Packers, meanwhile, went 3-1 over the same stretch, so when week fifteen was finished, the Vikings were sharing first place in the division with another team for the first time since Week 1. And with the 12-2 Kansas City Chiefs up next for the Vikings, things were looking bleak.
But the Vikings held true to their maddening unpredictability and annihilated the Chiefs 45-20 at the Metrodome. So the next evening when Brett Favre played brilliantly the day after his father passed away and led the Packers to a 41-7 rout of the Raiders, it didn’t really matter to Vikes fans, because the purple had just beaten the best team in the NFL and their last game of the season would be against the lowly 3-12 Arizona Cardinals. As a Vikings fan, you had every reason to be confident. It had taken a few weeks, but the Vikes had righted the ship and the team that had cruised out to a 6-0 start was once again running strong. The Vikings and Packers were both 9-6, but because the Vikes held the tiebreaker, all they had to do was beat a crappy Arizona team and the division title was theirs. All of the confusion, heartache, and frustration of the roller coaster season would be washed away by beating a bad team that was riding a seven game losing streak; a team that was likely to get the number one pick in the draft and therefore had every reason to not even try.
But these are the Vikings. If there has ever been a franchise that can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it is the purple. The Vikings struggled in the first half and went to the locker room down 6-0. Many of the fans in Tempe that day were wearing purple and gold, a mass exodus of Minnesotans getting out of the frigid late December weather to celebrate a division title in the sunny heat of Arizona. Despite the lethargic first half effort, as a Viking fan you knew they could come back in the second half. And they did.
The Vikings rattled off seventeen unanswered points, and with 6:48 left in the game, they had a comfortable 17-6 lead. Meanwhile in Lambeau, the Packers were pounding the Broncos, but the cheesehead celebrations were subdued by the stadium scoreboards showing that the Vikings were running away with the NFC North title.
The Cardinals strung together a drive and scored a touchdown on fourth and goal from the two yard line but missed the two point conversion, leaving the score 17-12. But the drive took nearly five minutes off the clock, so when the Cardinals lined up for an onside kick, there was only 1:54 remaining. Vikings fans still had reason to be confident, because the only touchdown the Cards had scored the whole game was against the Vikings’ prevent defense, so even if they recovered the kick, what were the chances the Cards could drive half the field in less than two minutes? Slim to none, right?
The Cardinals recovered the onside kick at their own 42. Their terrible offense had 58 yards to go with only one timeout. Immediately, as usual with the Vikes, disaster struck. On first down, Vikings CB Denard Walker was called for an unbelievably bone-headed 28 yard pass interference penalty, making it first down at the Minnesota 30. Josh McCown then completed a 5 yard pass to Emmitt Smith followed by a 14 yard pass to Nate Poole. On 1st and ten from the 12, Smith ran for a 4 yard gain. Vikings fans’ stomachs were churning. How could they blow this? What the hell were they doing? Just when it seemed the impossible nightmare was about to happen, the Vikings D finally fought back.
Kevin Williams beat a triple team and sacked McCown for a nine yard loss and forced the Cards to use their final timeout with 31 seconds left. It was 3rd and 15 from the 18 yard line, McCown took the snap, only to be sacked again, this time by Chris Hovan. As he was sacked, McCown fumbled, but the ball was recovered by a Cardinal lineman. It was 4th and 25 and the Cards had no way to stop the clock. They hurried to the line and were able to get the snap off with only four seconds left. Vikings fans were going bonkers; their team was going to win the division. The clock ticked down to zero, McCown rolled to his right and threw the ball to the right back corner of the end zone. Nate Poole (a guy who would end his NFL career with only two TD catches) made the catch, got one foot in, and was then pushed out by Denard Walker and safety Brian Russell. The referees ruled that Poole was forced out (a rule that no longer exists, by the way) and then signaled touchdown. The booth review confirmed the initial ruling and the game was over, 18-17 Cardinals. The Vikings had lost with zero seconds left on the clock in the last game of the season.
The Vikes finished 9-7, while Seattle and Dallas, both at 10-6, claimed the two Wild Card spots. The hated Packers won the division and the mayor of Green Bay even invited Nate Poole to attend the playoff game in Lambeau where he was given the key to the city. (Although the Packers’ next game would be the famous “4th and 26” loss to the Eagles. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.)
So there you have it.The 2003 Minnesota Vikings, after leading the NFC North division for every single second of the regular season, did not make the playoffs.
Only the Vikings.