You Weren't Supposed To Win!: Sports Stories That Never Were—'98 NFC Title
In sports we love surprises. We love to see the team that wasn’t supposed to be there pull off a big upset. We love the rags to riches stories, and the unscripted fun that sports has to offer.
Occasionally, though, we want things to go a certain way. Sometimes without knowing it, most sports fans will have a bias.
For instance, the day Brett Favre’s Packers were playing the Raiders, back in 2003, almost everyone was rooting for the Packers. This is because we all knew that just one day earlier Brett had lost his father to a car accident.
Favre played the game of his life, and his team won.
Or take the 2008 US Open, for example. Tiger Woods was almost everyone’s favorite because he was playing heroically on a bad knee.
Tiger ended up winning it all.
How about Super Bowl XLI? I think it’s safe to say that most people wanted to see Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning finally win the ring. We were rooting for those guys, even if you weren’t a Colts fan.
And, sure enough, they won. Peyton even got the MVP award.
It seems like the sentimental favorite will always find a way to win, whether it’s Jerome Bettis in Super Bowl XL, or Lance Armstrong winning the Tour De France. Something “wills” that person or team to victory.
This is why I think it’s very sad and remarkable when the overwhelming fan favorite goes down, and what makes it worse is if they had a great chance to put the game away.
I cannot think of a better example than the '98 NFC Championship Game. It was one of those times when sports just didn’t have a happy ending.
For many reasons, the Minnesota Vikings were the favorites over the Atlanta Falcons, not just in the point spread, but also in America’s hearts.
Vikings coach Dennis Green was trying to become the first African American head coach to reach the Super Bowl. Before that magical '98 season, he had taken a lot of criticism by both the fans and the media. Many people said that a black coach could not be trusted to lead his team to the Promised Land. Many ignorant people wrote angry letters or put out hate mail.
His team’s success prompted most of the sports nation to get behind him, and root for him.
Cris Carter was another one of those men that had to overcome adversity. Earlier in his career, the veteran wideout was cut by the Eagles because of a drug addiction. Many did not think he would play again, but the Vikings gave him a second chance, and he went on to become one of their greatest players in the NFL.
Nothing would have capped off a Hall of Fame career better than a ring.
Randy Moss was the rookie out of Marshall that was looked at with scrutiny. Despite the obvious fact that he was the best receiver in the draft class, many draft experts felt that he was a trouble-maker and because of this, 21 teams passed on him. It wasn’t until the Vikings took him at No. 22 that he got his chance.
During the season, his story began to grow as he started to prove every person wrong that passed on him. He caught a rookie record 17 touchdowns. A fair number of people may have wanted Moss to finish the fairy tale story with a record-setting playoff run.
Look at Randall Cunningham. He was the quarterback who had supposedly seen his better days, and in '96 was out of football completely for a year. That all changed when he was brought in to play in Week Two, and went on to have the best year of his career. He was facing Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler. Everyone wanted Cunningham to lead his team to the Super Bowl, and nobody really knew who Chandler even was.
The average fan had to feel sympathy for the Vikings, simply for the fact that they had been to the Big Show four times before in their history, but never once did they manage to win. This was supposed to be the year they made up for all those missed opportunities.
After a record-setting 15-1 regular season that, at that time, featured one of the most dominant offensive juggernauts in league history, they were primed to finish off a flash-in-the-pan Falcons team and continue their fairy tale story.
On paper, they were favored to win, and the game started out that way. They were up 17-7, and driving. Randy Moss got his hands on what would have been a touchdown, but he dropped it. They settled for a field goal, and a crushing fumble at the end of the half put Falcons in business. They were able to get a touchdown, and the score at the half was 20-14.
With roughly two minutes to go in the game, the Vikings found themselves up 27-20. They were lined up to kick a 38-yard field goal. A 10-point lead with that little time would have virtually put the nails in the coffin.
To make things even more certain, the Vikings kicker, Gary Anderson, was perfect that year. He had not missed a single extra point or field goal. Add in the fact that the game was in a dome! Victory was inevitable and redemption was at hand—or so everyone thought.
He lined up for the kick, and sure enough, it sailed wide. The Falcons went on to tie the game up and win it in overtime.
To make things worse, the Falcons would go on to get clobbered by the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Many people still believe that the Vikings could have beaten Elway’s team that year.
You see, to me what makes this story so crazy is that the favorite, the sentimental team, well...lost. It goes against the grain of sports. Not to say that the Falcons were a bad team; they were a great team, but we all fully expected the Vikings to win and the fact is they really should have. I mean, give them credit; they had a fantastic year, and proved a lot of people wrong, but they could’ve done so much more.
To me (except for Super Bowl XXXVIII, that’s my own bias), this is probably the saddest thing that ever happened in a football game. There were so many men on that team that could have, once and for all, exorcised their demons, but one failed kick brought their world crashing down. I think Carter’s comments after the game summed up the whole story.
"Walking off that field and losing like that...I didn't even know if I wanted to play football again," Carter said. "I just felt like I would never win after that."
Look, I know that the unpredictability of sports is awesome, but if anyone ever deserved to win, it had to be the Vikings in this game. They were riding a ship of dreams atop a record 556 points, and were thought to be unsinkable.
Well, history proved them wrong and, like the Titanic before them, they met a tragic end well before they achieved full glory.
Some may say "Serves those chokers right!"
I say to them that maybe things should have been different. Maybe the Falcons weren't supposed to win. Not on that day. Not against that team.
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