The strangest regular season in National Football League history ended in appropriate fashion tonight. The Minnesota Vikings, on Tommy Kramer's 14-yard pass to Rickey Young with 1:52 remaining, defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 31-27, and avoided a playoff rematch in Dallas Sunday.
Instead, the Vikings are host to Atlanta and Tampa Bay travels to Dallas.
The Vikings appeared to have the game wrapped up much earlier, leading by 24-13 after John Turner's 33-yard touchdown run with an intercepted pass on the first play of the fourth quarter. That evaporated on a 99-yard run from scrimmage by Tony Dorsett, longest in NFL history, and a two-yard run by Ron Springs that followed a 41-yard pass from Danny White to Doug Cosbie.
But Kramer rallied the Vikings again, driving them 80 yards in 10 plays. On third and 18 from his 24, he kept the drive moving with a 23-yard completion to wide receiver Terry LeCount. After a 29-yard pass to tailback Ted Brown, he passed to Young for the winner. Young made a sliding catch at the Dallas eight, got up and scored before a defender could reach him.
"I didn't think I could get up," Young said. "But Teddy (Brown) kept yelling at me to get up, that I could make it. I told myself I would crawl in if I had to, but I was able to get up and get in."
Minnesota players said they were not discouraged by Dorsett's long run, although Coach Bud Grant admitted, "I was in awe of the play."
Nose guard Charlie Johnson said, "After he did it, there was nothing. No emotion change by us. A lot of teams would have folded, but not us. We were out on the field telling everybody to relax. And we did."
The Cowboys took a 10-0 lead, but by halftime it was 10-10, with Minnesota dominating play. Dallas did not get a first down in three second-period possessions and had the ball for a mere 1 minute 32 seconds.
At the start, the Cowboys twice drove into field-goal range before Minnesota was able to make a first down. The first time, Rafael Septien was short and low with a 47-yard attempt. On the next occasion, Septien was successful from 42 yards.
The three points were small consolation, because just before the field goal, White overthrew Butch Johnson, alone in the end zone after eluding Turner and John Swain.
The Dallas defense made it 10-0 early in the second period. Right cornerback Dennis Thurman cut in front of LeCount and intercepted a pass from Kramer in full stride, returning it 60 yards for the touchdown.
The key play in the Vikings' turnabout occurred on their next series. Apparently stopped on fourth and six at their 45, the Vikings called a fake punt. Greg Coleman, seemingly was caught a long way from a first down by Billy Joe DuPree, he escaped DuPree's grasp and ran across the field to the left sideline and a 20-yard gain at the Dallas 40.
But the drive stalled at the Cowboys' 12 and Rick Danmeier kicked a 28-yard field goal.
Three completions by Kramer helped bring the Vikings back to another first down at the 12. Once again, it became third and three, with Brown stopped a yard from a first down. Brown made it on fourth down, however, and in two plays covered the final yard for his first rushing touchdown of the season.
In the third period, the Vikings drove 74 yards in nine plays for a 17-10 lead. Brown scored on a 13-yard pass from Kramer, breaking free from linebacker Anthony Dickerson at the 10.
A 22-yard field goal by Septien brought the Cowboys within 17-13 late in the third period.
Darrin Nelson fumbled the kickoff, giving Dallas the ball at the Vikings' 15, but Dorsett bobbled a handoff and Minnesota got it back.
On the first play of the fourth period, defensive end Mark Mullaney tipped a pass intended for Cosbie at the left sideline. Turner, the safety, intercepted and returned the ball for a touchdown and a 24-13 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Dallas appeared to hit rock bottom, as Timmy Newsome fumbled out of bounds at the one. But Dorsett, who had gained only 41 yards in 13 carries, broke up the middle, cut to the right sideline and ran 99 yards for a touchdown. The previous record was 97 yards, set by Andy Uram of Green Bay in 1939 and tied 10 years later by Pittsburgh's Bob Gage.