The Eagles and Vikings served up the weekend's first NFL playoff platter here today -- and tripped with it. Fell smack dab on their faces with it at times. Even some of the players admitted they had never experienced anything quite like it.
It was part classic football and part follyball, knee-wrenching hits mixed with thigh-slapping humor, with the script revised every few plays. What began as Cinderella Wears Snowshoes ended as Kramer versus Kramer. The right team -- the Eagles -- won, although not necessarily because it had more of the right stuff.
The Vikings had gotten here on Tommy Kramer's wing and a prayer of a pass against the Browns. They stumbled out, in part, because Kramer lost some instant arguments with himself about where to throw several second-half passes. i
Seriously, the Viking quarterback said after the 31-16 loss: "We wanted to throw to as many people as possible out there." Immediately, one bystander thought that the best and most succinct analysis for Kramer had completed 19 passes to seven Vikings and five passes to three Eagles.
"They were kinda scared today, thoughKramer volunteered. And he was right. A Viking victory would not have been an upset for the ages in the NFL, but more than enough to get the Eagles kicked out of town here on their tail feathers. The best team in the worst division, after all, was not supposed to go up, 14-0, on the longtime favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The Vikings dominated just about every phase of the first 14 minutes. They bruised the Eagle egos with some imaginative offense and bruised the Eagles bodies with the sort of hitting that comes after being described as a team that would would finish behind Wake Forest in the ACC.
The Eagles were dropping passes and limping off the field every few plays. Even their one bright thought, a splendidly concieved bit of chicanery, failed when the officials ruled John Sciarra had not strayed far enough from the Eagles' nest to catch the Vikings in a rare mental lapse.
On fourth down, with Minnesota ahead by 7-0 and having blocked a chip field-goal try, the Eagles tried a fake punt play they practice often, in order to avoid exactly what happenened today.
While the offense is trotting off the field and the punt team is trotting on, Sciarra mingles along the sideline. He is one of the outside men who dashes downfield to make an early tackle when Max Runager kicks but who is eligible to catch a pass if nobody covers his.
The idea is for Sciarra to lose himself among the offensive players coming off the field. The punt team does not huddle on the field, which adds to the deception. And just before the snap Sciarra steps five yards from the sideline, as the rules require, hoping nobody on the other side of the line notices him.
Viking Kurt Knoff sensed something strange, when Sciarra seemed nowhere in sight.
"He's my man, the one on the outside," Knoff said. "I thought at first he just wasn't out there, 'cause he'd been hurt earlier. Then I saw him -- too late, I thought at first."
Sciarra thus was uncovered enough to catch Runager's pass for an apparent first down on the Viking half of the field. Even better, some rude Viking grabbed his face mask while making the tackle. So it seemed even bigger than a big play.
Confusion reigned. One moment the Eagles were jumping with joy and the next instant it was the Vikings' turn for jubilation. Finally, the Vikings prevailed, when the officials said Sciarra was not far enough from the Eagles bench to be eligible for a pass.
There is a rule to prevent the sort of dirty trick common in football at one time. A Sciarra would blend in with his teammates just beyond the sideline and then, at the snap, step onto the field, rush downfield with no defender near him and catch a long pass.
This sort of thing went out long before Watergate. White-haired Bud Grant could not recall the last time he'd seen anyone try it. The Eagles work on it quite a lot.
"And we executed it (today) as well as you can," Sciarra said. "Yes, I was five yards from the sideline."
The officials said no. Coach Dick Vermeil fumed. He even offered one of the instant photos the Eagles take on every play as evidence during the fuss. His protest fell on chilled and deaf ears.
After the game, Vermeil managed to keep his feelings about the decision publicly hidden. "I've been fined $2,000 already this year (by the league) for telling the truth." he said.
The truth today, and the Eagles know it, is that they might well have lost to someone other than the Vikings. Having won easily when they met earlier in the season, the Eagles played badly enough to keep an undermanned and inferior team that committed football suicide -- eight turnovers -- in contention until late in the fourth quarter.
"One time there was a miscommunication between me and Ahmad (Rashad)," said Kramer, beginning to detail each of his five worst mistakes of the day. "Another time I tried to take something off the ball and it got tipped to one of their guys. Another time their guy (Herman Edwards) just made a great play. Another time. . ."
Kramer went on -- but so did most of those listening to him. The human mind can absorb only so much. And there were bodies to count in the Eagle dressing room. How many of them were still alive after the vicious Vikings had hit them for the final time? How many would be able to play for the NFC title next week?
Most of the Eagles were limping. Wilbert Montgomery had suffered a leg injury and had not been able to finish the game. How fit he will be next week may well remain in doubt until shortly before the kickoff.
But anyone familiar with Montgomery has little doubt he will play. After all, he entered the NFL hurt. Nearly every team assumed he has been run to death in college. Besides, he developed a calcium deposit in his leg his senior year. The Eagles took a chance on Montgomery and, four years later, are grateful they did.