Two steps away, but those two steps are like light years

I look forward to Sunday with cautious optimism. I’ve been a Minnesota Vikings fan for almost 50 years now, and again they are but a couple victories away from the Super Bowl, something they haven’t visited since SB XI. Yes, that’s eleven in Roman numerals.

If things break right for the team, they could avenge two overtime NFC Championship Game losses on its way to a home game in Super Bowl LII. No team has ever played in its home stadium in a Super Bowl, so already there’s reason for my caution. Other Vikings fans can feel the pain before the game even starts. Forget about how it ends, usually painfully and memorably.

Minnesota lost three Super Bowls in four years in the mid-’70s, and they had lost Super Bowl IV to the Chiefs in the last season before the NFL and AFL merged. They were nearly two-touchdown favorites in that game, though I was too young to remember it. The other three? They lost to a Dolphins team one year after its perfect season; they lost to the Steelers at the beginning of their dynasty; and they lost to a Raiders team that had lost three straight AFC championship games before finally knocking off their hated Steelers.

To you Boston Red Sox fans who kept crying about not winning a World Series: Consider that the Sox won in 1918 then experienced its long “Curse of the Bambino” stretch for 86 years. They lost four times in the Series during that span — 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986 — and lost the American League Championship Series four times — 1988, 1990, 1999 and 2003 — before winning the World Series three times in 10 years between 2004 to 2013. Pencils down and calculators out … that’s eight losses in the final or penultimate step over a span of 86 years — or 9% of the seasons.

The Vikings have lost nine times in the final or penultimate step over a span of 41 seasons — or 22% of the seasons.

So what about those five NFC Championship Game losses, all since the Vikings’ last SB appearance? With a chance to go to its fourth Super Bowl in five years, the Vikings lost 23-6 to Dallas after the 1977 season. They were never in the game, but it stunk because it was the the Cowboys, who beat what was probably the best Vikings team two years earlier on the “Hail Mary” pass. (Drew Pearson – pass interference; just sayin’.) If not for the Cowboys, Minnesota could have visited (and probably lost) FIVE Super Bowls in a row!

After the 1987 season, they lost to the Redskins 17-10 when Darrin Nelson dropped a potential touchdown catch that might have tied the game, but that was a strike season, so it doesn’t count as much.

After the 2000 season, they were blown out by the Giants. I gave up at halftime.

It’s those other two games — the overtime games — that sting.

The 1998 Vikings team was explosive, with Randall Cunningham, running back Robert Smith and receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss. They set an NFL record with 556 points and won their nine previous home games by an average of 23 points. I was doing touchdown dances in bars, in my living room and with my young sons. The Vikings were favored by 11 points at home against the Atlanta Falcons and held a 13-point lead late in the first half. Then a series of mistakes and bad decisions doomed the team. First, they fumbled the ball deep in their own territory rather than running out the clock to close out the first half, so they saw a 20-7 lead turn into a 20-14 halftime edge. With a 27-20 lead, Smith carried the load and Minnesota drained the clock in the fourth quarter on its way to setting up a field goal by Gary Anderson. The veteran kicker had converted all of his extra points and field goals that season, but he pulled the kick wide left, and the Falcons drove down the field. Defensive back Robert Griffith dropped what would have been a game-ending interception in the end zone, then Atlanta scored a touchdown on the next play to tie the game. The inevitable bad ending came in overtime when Morten Andersen, Atlanta’s veteran kicker, nailed the game-winner from the same spot on the field where Gary Anderson had missed his kick a few minutes earlier.

After the 2009 season, the Vikings again lost in overtime in what turned out to be Brett Favre’s last game. Favre threw an interception that ended regulation when the Vikings were in (long) field goal range, and the New Orleans Saints took the overtime kickoff down the field to win on a field goal. Minnesota never touched the ball in OT. As a result, NFL rules have been changed to allow both teams to have a possession in overtime.

Fittingly, the Vikings face the Saints on Sunday. If they win and the Falcons defeat the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, Minnesota would host the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game next weekend. Two home games against the Saints and Falcons — teams that beat them in OT.

Excited? Of course, but it’s reserved. Remember, no team has played at home in the Super Bowl. Do I really think the Vikings will be playing at home on the first Sunday in February?

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