The final episode of “America’s Game: Missing Rings” spotlights the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, which finished the regular season 15-1 only to lose the NFC title to Atlanta in overtime.
This series perhaps is stronger than its predecessor “America’s Game,” in that it explores the valleys of failure along with the joy of victory. This episode (which debuts 9 p.m. Thursday on NFL Network) joins the series’ other four — the 1990 Buffalo Bills, the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals, 1969 Vikings and the 1981 San Diego Chargers — in that formula. In the other episodes, you always had the feeling those teams were very good, memorable but not the best. This one feels different.
Interviews with wide receiver Cris Carter, Coach Dennis Green (a former Iowa football player) and defensive tackle John Randle show a depth of pain previously unseen in this series. Maybe it’s because none of them have gotten over the loss to Atlanta. It appears they all have unresolved issues with the conclusion.
“Walking off that field and losing like that … I didn’t know if I wanted to play football anymore,” Carter said. “I felt like I’d never win after that.”
“I think if we would have beaten Atlanta and if we would have gone on and beaten the Denver Broncos that we would have called the greatest team in the National Football League the last 25 years,” Green said.
The Vikings set an NFL record (since exceeded by the 2007 New England Patriots) by scoring 556 points, an average of nearly 35 points a game. The Vikings’ only regular-season loss was by three points at Tampa Bay. The offense featured the future Hall of Famer Carter making his usual circus catches for touchdowns. It had a solid offensive line, a talented running back in Robert Smith and a reinvigorated Randall Cunningham. But rookie wide receiver Randy Moss set the Vikings apart.
Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns that season. He was named first-team All-Pro and shocked everyone with his athletic ability.
“I told Dennis Green that (Moss) is the most unbelievable athlete I have ever seen,” Carter said.
I covered the Kansas City Chiefs for five years and saw Moss compete against the Chiefs annually in training camp. I asked former Chiefs cornerback Eric Warfield if he looked forward to a two-day scrimmage against the Vikings. “Yeah, right,” was about all he said and then rolled his eyes. The next few days I understood why. Moss combines speed and athletic ability better than any other player ever. He’s deceptively strong, taller than most defenders and faster than all of them. He routinely beat Chiefs defenders in everything from drills to live contact.
“They call me The Freak … ’cause I’m a freak of nature,” Moss said in the episode.
The episode’s final segment is the only football parallel I can find with the Chicago Cubs’ Bartman incident in 2003. The Vikings led 27-20 with only a few minutes left. A 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson would have virtually iced the win. Anderson hadn’t missed all season … until that kick. Teams with fragile egos often feel the elements while the players try to collect their breath. That’s what happened in both cases.
“It was like somebody punched me in my stomach,” Randle said about the kick. “Oh, my goodness … oh, my God.”
The Falcons scored a touchdown to send the game into overtime. Falcons kicker Morten Andersen sent the ’98 Vikings into also-ran status with a 38-yard field goal.
Of the five “Missing Rings” episodes about teams who didn’t win the Super Bowl, this Vikings’ version was clearly the best team. Outside of last year’s 16-0 Patriots that lost the Super Bowl, the 1998 Vikings were the best team not to win the Super Bowl. The Vikings’ loss robbed the public of perhaps the best matchup in Super Bowl history of the Vikings facing against 14-2 Denver. The Broncos won their first 13 games that season en route to a second straight championship. Denver nearly missed the Super Bowl because of the Vikings. Denver Coach Mike Shanahan and the rest of the Broncos were in shock of the Vikings’ loss that they nearly were upset by the New York Jets. That incident is recalled in “America’s Game: 1998 Denver Broncos.”
Even if you support another franchise, such as the Bears or Packers, you can understand the regret and loss Carter, Randle and Green still feel to this day. This five-episode series is the best NFL Films has created in its illustrious history. There are plenty more stories to share out there, and I hope the company decides to continue down this path.