Winless in four previous playoff games under embattled coach Dennis Green, the Vikings scored 10 points in the final 90 seconds to shock the New York Giants, 23-22, in an NFC wild-card game at Giants Stadium.
Eddie Murray's 24-yard field goal with 10 seconds left earned Minnesota (10-7) its first playoff win since 1988 and a second-round date next Saturday in San Francisco against the 49ers.
"With God, all things are possible," said Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham.
Cunningham, 34, ought to know. A year ago, he was out of football, an 11-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles having run its course. A month ago, he was a seldom-seen backup behind Brad Johnson.
Yesterday, he was back in the spotlight, talking about destiny and the Super Bowl.
"God didn't bring me back to drop me off short," he said of his conviction the Vikings would find a way to win.
They found the most improbable way to win.
They had to overcome three Cunningham turnovers in the first half that resulted in a 16-point deficit.
They had one wide receiver, Cris Carter, come back from a series of muffed passes to make two big receptions in the final flurry.
They had another receiver, Jake Reed, who sprained an ankle in the first half, come back to deliver the two biggest plays in the comeback, one of them a questionable touchdown catch.
Improbable? There was no explaining this one in the Giants' locker room. They appeared to have the game wrapped up when Brad Daluiso kicked a 22-yard field goal with seven minutes left. His fifth field goal padded the New York lead to 22-13.
But the seeds of their undoing had already been sewn in that ragged first half, when the Giants (10-6-1) scored field goals instead of touchdowns. They had five possessions inside the Minnesota 30 in the first half, and managed only one touchdown, a 2-yard toss from quarterback Danny Kanell to tight end Aaron Pierce.
They couldn't cash in from the 4 in the first quarter or the 5 in the fourth quarter.
"I think we all tasted the victory," Kanell said. "I think we all felt we had things in pretty good shape. I think we felt like our defense was going to come up big and that we would be out there kneeling on the ball.
"That's why it makes it so hard for this game, because we saw the victory right there and had it right in front of us."
Kanell completed 16 of 32 passes for 199 yards, but missed big plays in the passing game all day, often throwing behind his receivers. The Giants' defense harassed Cunningham in the first half, then was reduced to squabbling amongst itself in the second half.
In the end, it was Minnesota's defense that turned the game around. Led by defensive tackles Tony Williams and Jerry Ball, the Vikings held the Giants to 8 rushing yards on 15 carries in the second half.
"The key for us was run defense," Green said. "When they're running the ball and they wind up with second-and-13, or second-and-14, then you've got a chance."
The Vikings ultimately won it with their passing game. Down 22-13, Cunningham (15-for-36 for 203 yards) threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Reed in the two-minute offense. Reed got behind safety Tito Wooten and made the catch at the back of the end zone.
It appeared in TV replays that his left foot came down on the end line with his second step. If so, it should have been ruled incomplete.
"If the ref said I was inbounds, I was inbounds, regardless of what the replay shows," Reed said.
That made it 22-20 with 1: 30 to play. The Vikings' Chris Walsh recovered the ensuing onside kick at the Minnesota 39 after it bounced off the chest of Giants receiver Chris Calloway.
From Walsh's perspective, the ball ricocheted from Calloway to the Vikings' Torrian Gray and Corey Fuller before bouncing his way.
"Fuller had his left hand on it and they were pulling him away when he hit it with the back of his hand to me," Walsh said.
Three plays and a penalty later, Cunningham completed a third-down pass to Carter for 21 yards to the Giants' 34.
Then came the play that proved decisive for the Giants. Cornerback Phillippi Sparks was flagged for pass interference on a sideline throw intended for Reed. It put the Vikings at the 21.
"He kind of arm-barred me from running my route," Reed said, "and when you're that deep down the field -- 10 or 12 yards -- they're going to throw the flag every time."
From there, running back Robert Smith bolted 16 yards up the middle to the 5-yard line. Cunningham spiked the ball to stop the clock with 13 seconds left.
Murray's field goal sneaked inside the left upright, sending the distraught Giants into the off-season.
"This is not going away very easily," Giants coach Jim Fassel said.
Biggest playoff comebacks
Date, Winner, Loser, Site, Deficit, Final
1/3/93, Buffalo, Houston, Buffalo, 32, (35-3), 41-38, OT
12/22/57, Detroit, San Fran., San Fran., 20 (27-7), 31-27
12/23/72, Dallas, San Fran., San Fran., 18 (21-3), 30-28
1/4/86, Miami, Cleveland, Miami, 18 (21-3), 24-21
12/27/97, Minnesota, N.Y. Giants, New York, 16 (19-3), 23-22
Denver or New England at Pittsburgh, 12: 30 p.m.
Minnesota at San Fran., 4 p.m.
Detroit or Tampa Bay at Green Bay, 12: 30 p.m.
Denver or Miami at Kansas City, 4 p.m.
At San Diego, 6 p.m.
Pub Date: 12/28/97