Niners Biggest Playoff Upset!
Last week I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the 49ers first ever title in their 25th year of existence. This week is the 50th anniversary of the most stunning Niners playoff upset, in their first ever playoff appearance!
The upset occurred 50 years ago on December 27, 1970. On that date the San Francisco 49ers won their first NFL playoff victory. The victory was a stunning road upset, the biggest upset of the 1970 NFL season, over the Minnesota Vikings, the defending NFL champions on the frozen tundra of Minneapolis’s Metropolitan Stadium!
Here’s why it was such an astonishing upset. The Vikings had posted the best record in the NFL for two years running at 12-2. The Vikings ferocious stifling defense had given up the least points in the NFL for those two years, less than ten points a game. The Vikes defense was anchored by one of the best defensive lines in NFL history, the Purple People Eaters. Here’s the capper… the Vikings had not lost a home game for more than two years, 16 games!
The game conditions were brutally frigid, 10 degrees, a 12 mph wind and a Siberian-like wind chill of minus 5! During the week Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Niners as much as an 11 point underdog, before settling on a 7 point underdog before game time. Virtually nobody gave the team from California any chance against the mighty Vikings in the mind-numbing frigid conditions. It matched the Niners NFL number one scoring offense (352) against the Vikings NFL number one scoring defense (143).
On Christmas Day my best friend, Rick Wilson, and I flew to New York City to visit Rick’s older sister Nancy and her husband, Johnny. My father worked for American Airlines and he got Rick and I free passes to New York City. Nancy and her husband’s apartment was in the heart of The Bronx, close to old Yankee Stadium.
Rick and I had just turned 18 and were overjoyed that New York’s drinking age was 18! Naturally, for the 49ers – Vikings game we went to a nearby bar, The Rustic Inn, to watch the game. The bar was more crowded than we expected for a Sunday afternoon, but it was NFL playoff football. Once the patrons knew we were from the Bay Area they peppered us with wager propositions. Finally, I took a bet for $20 from a half-inebriated dude that gave me 13 points! In those days $20 was a BIG gamble for me! I nursed my two beers during the game to ensure I had a twenty dollar bill to pay off if the Niners couldn’t keep it close.
The game began ominously for the Prospectors. The Vikings drove the opening kickoff deep into Niners territory. Outside linebacker Jim Sniadecki bailed the 49ers out by intercepting a wayward pass from Vikings quarterback Gary Cuozzo. The reprieve was short lived, because 49ers fullback fumbled two plays later and future Vikings Hall of Fame free safety Paul Krause scooped it up and ran it 22 yards into the end zone. 7-0 Minnesota not halfway through the first quarter, my Andrew Jackson bill looked lost!
The Niners offensive line, who had only yielded a then record low eight sacks that season, was keeping the ferocious Purple People Eaters off Brodie. The Niners were on the move at about midfield when JB (John Brodie) hit the brilliant deep threat, Gene Washington, with a bomb! When the football hit Washington’s hands I jumped up yelling – TOUCHDOWN! The normally sure-handed Washington fumbled the ball into the end zone after landing on the rock-hard frozen field at the Vikes five yard line. Minnesota recovered for a touchback. My bet antagonist was euphoric while I sat back down in a huff.
The 49ers defense forced a punt and the Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL leading punt returner, Bruce Taylor, busted a 30 yard return to the Vikings 27. Two plays later Brodie lofted a perfect 24 yard TD pass to possession wide receiver Dick Witcher. Niners 7 Vikings 7 with a minute left in the first quarter. My bet was looking better!
The second quarter was marked by good defense by both squads. Towards the end of the half 49ers reserve defensive lineman Stan Hindman recovered a Viking fumble. It resulted in a Bruce Gossett 40 yard field goal with 2:27 to go in the half. After another fumble recovery by the 49ers, a last second 35 yard field goal attempt by Gossett was blocked by Hall of Fame Vikings defensive end Carl Eller. 49ers 10 Vikings 7 and I was feeling good.
The third quarter was dominated by the defenses as both teams traded punts. The only highlight for Vikings fans and my betting buddy was the lone sack for the Vikes by Alan Page. Bruce Taylor, who had a brilliant game, intercepted a pass at the end of the quarter.
It was tense as the final quarter opened with the Niners clinging to their slim 10-7 lead. The 49ers seemed to get it going beginning the quarter with an end around by Ted Kwalick and a pass to him by JB. Just as the Niners got some offensive mojo Bill Tucker fumbled and Paul Krause recovered again.
The Viking drive stalled deep in 49ers territory with a critical combo sack by Cedric Hardman, Earl Edwards and Tommy Hart. The Vikings kicker Fred Cox, the NFL’s leading scorer, attempted to tie it up with a 43 yard field goal. It was right on line, but it died in the frigid conditions and barely fell two feet short of the crossbar! I heaved a big sigh of relief!
It remained 10-7 into the final minutes of the game. Niners backup quarterback and punter, Steve Spurrier, boomed a 59 yard punt that was downed at the Minnesota one. After holding the Vikings to a three-and-out Vikings punter Tom McNeil had to punt from deep in his end zone. Bruce Taylor, that guy again, weaved through the Vikings to take it to the Minnesota 14 yard line! After 49ers fullback Ken Willard busted a run to the Vikings 1 yard line, John Brodie executed a quarterback sneak behind center Forrest Blue for the critical TD. The Niners led 17 to 7 with 1:20 to go and Rick and I went crazy!
Cedric Hardman sacked Vikes quarterback Gary Cuozzo to start the Vikings desperate two-minute drill. But, Cuozzo, after converting on a fourth and long, marched the Vikings down to the 49er’s 24 yard line. He then hit the Vikings Gene Washington with a TD pass for the only offensive touchdown by the Vikings with 1 second left! The desperation onside kick was recovered by 49ers rookie Bob Hoskins and the Niners had their first playoff win in their 25th season!
My betting compadre paid me the $20 muttering that he underestimated the 49ers defense. Rick and I stayed for the Raiders playoff game against the Miami Dolphins in Oakland. Living in Fremont, 20 miles south of Oakland, we were also big Raiders fans. But, I had seen my first 49ers game at Kezar Stadium in 1959 when I was 7 years old, so the Niners were MY team! The Raiders won 21-14 and Super Bowl fever broke out in the Bay Area. There was a very real possibility of a Bay Bridge Super Bowl in Miami in two weeks!
Here’s the reaction from the locker rooms. “We didn’t-move the ball well on them,” said quarterback John Brodie, “but our defense outplayed theirs. That was the key to the game.” Brodie said the Viking defense is most effective “when they’ve got you second-and-18. This puts you in trouble against their zone, and they’ll catch as many passes as we will. We tried a lot of short passes out of the backfield to try and keep the yardage close. I’m happy for all these guys,” Brodie said looking across the locker room. They’ve really sucked it up. We got out of some holes today, some teams don’t get out of any.”
“It’s been that way all year,” a tired coach Dick Nolan proudly proclaimed. “Forty guys pulling together to get the job done.” “The offensive line is a good example. All year, they’ve accepted the challenge and look at their record (a NFL record low 8 sacks allowed all season). They have to be one big reason why we have done so well.”
“There were a lot of ‘could-have-beens'”, Vikings’ coach Bud Grant, whose team was in the playoffs for the third straight year, added after the 49ers earned their 17-14 win. “We can’t afford to make mistakes with our brand of play,” Grant said. “You make that many mistakes against a good team and you lose. You have to give them a lot of credit,” he said. “It was our stadium (Minnesota had won 16 straight home games) and this is supposed to be our kind of weather.”
“Our offense gave them too many good opportunities and put too much pressure on our defense,” said disappointed running back Dave Osborn.
“I’ve been told not to be upset if we lost, because we had won the division championship.” said tight end Ted Kwalick, “People don’t think we can do it. but this team has a tremendous amount of pride.”
Defensive backfield coach Burnie Miller of the 49ers said “We felt all week that if we got ahead, they couldn’t come back and beat us with the pass. They rely on the run and use the pass only as a striking weapon,” he continued, denying this may be because of a weak Viking pass offense. “No, it’s just their philosophy.”
“We don’t overlook anybody.” said 49ers middle linebacker Frank Nunley, “But l don’t believe Dallas can be any better than the team we beat today. There’s no turning back now. We feel we met one challenge today, We’ll meet another in Dallas, but we believe if you get to our momentum, we can knock you out of field goal range.”
Dick Witcher on his touchdown catch said, “I had run a couple of out patterns before on Ed Sharockman, but this time I faked the out and went straight up.”
On only giving up one sack to the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters; “But you have to expect that to happen some time against a line as fine as Minnesota’s chimed in Niner offensive trench boss Ernie Zawahlen. “The sacking was just a mistake in hearing the blocking call. You’ll note it didn’t happen any more. We’re tough, we’re good, Howard Mudd (traded to Chicago during the 1969 season for free safety Rosey Taylor) was an all-league guard for us and I have six guys who are better. We don’t have a weakness.”
“We’re not Three Dots and a Dash, the Doomsday Defense or the Fearsome Foursome,” said defensive end Cednck Hardman, who had two sack and helped on a third. “We’re the Gold Rushers—we’re rushing after all the money.”
“Minnesota may have a big front four, but we have a big front eight,” defensive tackle said of the depth in the 49er defensive line. “I thought we outplayed them. Now this coming Sunday is the final step toward the money.”
“The Vikings had a heckuva game,” said cornerback Jimmy Johnson. “They had a couple of good long gainers, but we’d come up and stop them someway.”
Ken Willard, 49er running back still thinks the Viking front four “is the best’ “I’ve played against. You may whip them, but they’ll make you pay for it physically.”
Here’s a 30 minute video of the game.
Next week I’ll write about the sad final game at Kezar Stadium. Until then, stay safe my friends! Mavo is out!
Here’s more photos from the game.