The Minnesota Vikings backed into the National Football Conference playoffs yesterday, courtesy of a Los Angeles Ram victory over Green Bay. Minnesota, despite a 27-20 loss to Oakland, emerged as champion of the NFC Central Division.
The Vikings and Packers both finaished with 8-7-1 marks, but Minnesota got the title since it tied and defeated Green Aby in their two meetings.
Green Bay blew its chance to capitalize on the Viking loss by dropping a 31-14 game to the Rams, who clinched the home-field advantage throughout the National Conference playoffs. They finished with a 12-4 record the same as Dallas, but beat the Cowboys during the regular season.
Atlanta, which already had qualified for a wild-card spot because of Washington's loss to Chicago Saturday, ended its season on a disappointing note, losing, 42-21, to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Falcons will host the NFC's other wild-card team, Philadelpha, on Dec. 24 at 12:30 p.m. The Falcons finsihed with a 5-2 mark to the Eagles' 4-3 log against common opponents after each finished 9-7 overall.
Cullen Bryant rushed for a career high 121 yards and scored two touch-downs on short runs to lead the Rams. Ram quarterback Pat Haden scrambled 24 yards to set up one touchdown and passed 21 yards to Willie Miller for another.
Pat Thomas intercepted a David Whitehurst pass and returned it 21 yards to set up the first Ram touchdown, Bryant's one-yard run. A partially defelected Packer punt set up the Rams for a six-play 50-yard drive for their second toudchdown.
The Packers closed to 14-7 on Terdell Middleton's four-yard scamper and 21-14 on a 22-yard pass to Middleton in the fourth quarter. A 24 yard field goal by Frank Corral and a 44-yard interception return by cornerback Rod Perry for a touchdown ended the Packer season.
The Ram defense limited Green Bay's running attack to 75 yards on 29 carries. Middleton, who came into the game with 1,078 yards, was held to 38 on 17 carries.
Whitehurst was 12 of 25 passing for 166 yards and was intercepted three times. Haden was only nine of 26 with one interception and 140 yards.
The vikings set a pair of negative records in winning their sixth straight division title. Their .531 winning percentage was the lowest ever for a division winner and, after being out-scored, 294-306, during the season, Minnesota became the only team in league history to win a title while giving up more points thatn it scored.
The vikings turned the ball over three times to set up 21 Raider points in the first 11 minutes.
Two fumbles by Chuck Foreman and the first of five interceptions of Fran Tarkenton's passes were turned into Fred Biletnikoffhs 13-yard scoring catch. Charles Phillips' 31-yard scoring run with a recovered fumble and Mark van Eeghen's four-yard touchdown run.
Errol Mann added field goals of 30 and 45 yards for the Raiders.
Tarenton had rallied the Vikings to two fourth-quarter touchdowns aftr they trailed at the half, 21-6. He passed nine yards to Rickey Young at the beginning of the quarter and 24 yards to Ahamd Rashad with eight minutes left to reduce the deficit to 27-20.
But Lester Hayes intercepted Tarkenton on the Raider 15-yard line to kill a desperation Viking drive with 1:15 left.
"The vikings don't deserve to be in the playoffs," said Oakland guard Gene Upshaw. But he later wished the Vikings good luck and said, "In the playoffs, everybody starts out batting a thousand. They've got as good a chance as anyone, because they're in there."
The Raiders missed making the playoffs for the first time since 1971 when they were eliminated a week ago.
Cardinal quarterback Jim Hart had his best game of the season, passing for three touchdowns and running for two-the first he had personally scored since 1967.
Hart threw all his touchdown passes in the second quarter, then ran in from two yards out during a 28-point Cardinal outburst.
Hart completed 22 of 40 passes for 333 yards before leaving midway through the final quarter. Nine throws went to rookie wide receiver Dave Stief for 183 yards; Pat Thilley caught seven for 105 yards. Each scored a touchdown.
Falcon rookie Dennis Pearson ran back a kickoff 100 yards to tie the score at 14-all before Hart hit Tilley with a 26-yard scoring toss for a permanent lead. Hart added his two yard run to finish the scoring in the first half and chugged in from nine yards in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons reached the playoffs for the first time in their 13-year history.