EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - It happened so swiftly that those watching weren't quite sure what was going on. You always hear the clichés about how things aren't over until the fat lady sings, you play 'til the clock says 0:00, and so on, but it didn't seem possible that those long-taught lessons were coming true.
The 1997 wild card playoff game between the Giants and the Vikings didn't seem like the kind that would lead to a memorable finish. The East Division-winning Giants were matched up against the Vikings, who had finished fourth in the NFC Central yet had still made the playoffs. It shouldn't have been a close game, and at first, it didn't look like it would be. The Giants jumped out to a 16-0 lead in the first half, went into the locker room leading 19-3, and seemed destined for a second-round date with the Packers.
New York's offense bogged down in the second half, but the Vikings had trouble taking advantage. As the end of the fourth quarter approached, the Giants had a 22-13 lead and seemed safely through to the next round.
That's when the blind hope kicked in.
It's a familiar situation for football fans. The continuous glancing up at the scoreboard and the clock, trying to figure out how long it would take to get downfield, the chances of getting the onside kick, and getting down for another score. You wonder if the team should take the field goal when they can get it so as not to waste precious time. And again, you watch the clock. And you hope.
For the Vikings, the impossible started happening with 90 seconds to go in the game, when Randall Cunningham found Jake Reed for a 30-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 22-20. Fine, then, that was good, and there's still time to go get a field goal, as long as they recover the onside kick. But with the Vikings playoff history, were they really going to recover the onside kick? Really?
The kick bounced toward the Giants. A Giants player leaped forward, trying to recover the ball before it had bounced the appropriate 10 yards. It bounced off him and into a pile of Vikings. Suddenly, hope had turned into optimism.
The Vikings drove down, then, getting close to the end zone. It wasn't as big of a deal to watch the clock on this one. Eddie Murray's 24-yard field goal capped off a most dramatic playoff victory.
It's true the Vikings didn't win the following week, losing to San Francisco, who in turn lost to Green Bay as the Packers won the Super Bowl. But the excitement for the Vikings didn't die, at least not right away. It remains the most improbable playoff victory in team history, the game where the Vikings didn't stop playing until the final whistle, the one game where the ball bounced in their favor.