It happened in 1968. Oh, you remember the Vikings playing their first playoff game in 1968 and losing 24-14 on the road to the Baltimore Colts? Well, you’d be correct.
But, after the loss, the Vikings went on to play the Dallas Cowboys, who had lost their Divisional round playoff game to the Cleveland Browns 31-20. What, I thought the playoffs were a one-game elimination tournament?
Well, it was, but back in 1959, the new AFL was gearing-up to play a full fall season, to compete against the mighty NFL. Television coverage was still pretty sparse for the NFL, with few games being shown on television during the season. Meanwhile, the AFL got a full network contract to show their games on ABC during the season, and often, these were double-header games (NBC would contract the AFL later).
To help get more exposure for their teams, the NFL devised the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl – named after retiring NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, who served in the role from 1946-1959.
The game would pit the two losers of the Divisional round, to establish the 3rd best team in the NFL, while giving the viewers one more game to view the product.
Not all were thrilled with the idea of playing an exhibition game after they lost in a Divisional playoff. The players were game to play, as it was another paycheck to earn ($1,200 for each winning player, and $500 for each player on the losing squad), back when players had to get offseason jobs to make ends meet. However, legendary Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi, whose Packer teams played in 2 of these games (winning one and losing the other), told the players that the game wasn’t the “Loser’s Bowl” it was the “Shit Bowl”.
As the games were played in front of, perhaps, 17,000-20,000 fans, the AFL and NFL eventually agreed to play in Super Bowl games (known as the AFL-NFL World Championship until Super Bowl III), the interest in the game waned further for players and fans.
The game was played in the off-week between the Conference Championship and the Title/Super Bowl Games, with the AFL never holding one of these contests. Much like some of the recent Pro Bowl games, the contests were held in the stadium where the Super Bowl would be played.
Which brings us back to 1968, when the losing Minnesota Vikings hosted the losing Dallas Cowboys in the Orange Bowl in Miami, in front of tens of thousands of empty seats and seemingly fewer watching at home on their television sets.
No footage exists of this game – not broadcast or NFL Films. There are almost no photos except the 5 shown within this story. And, almost no news services reported in their paper the next day, the outcome of this game. But, it was important enough to the NFL, that the number one broadcast team of Ray Scott and Paul Christman would call the action live.
Both teams were young, up and coming teams, with the Cowboys, led by Dandy Don Meridith, joining the league as an expansion team in 1960, and the Joe Kapp-led Vikings becoming a member of the NFL a year later in 1961.
The Vikings had a ferocious defense, a quarterback in Joe Kapp who was a relentless leader, and a one-two punch at running back with Dave Osborn and Bill Brown creating the 3 yards and a cloud of dust offense.
On Sunday, January 5, 1969 in the Orange Bowl in Miami when the game was played in a sloppy, muddy mess of a field, all surviving photos of the game would indicate that many of the 22,961 fans reported in attendance, were disguised as empty seats.
Minnesota, winner of the Central Division title, jumped to a 13-0 lead in the first period. Cornerback Bobby Bryant returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, which was the longest return in the nine-year history of the Playoff Bowl, and Fred Cox kicked two field goals. But, then, the purple gang seemed to give up.
Dallas coach Tom Landry had high praise for quarterback Don Meredith. He rallied the Cowboys from a 13-0 first quarter deficit to 13-10 at halftime. Meredith completed 15 of 24 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown and was voted the outstanding player of the game.
Landry sent Craig Morton in at quarterback for the second half. After Dallas linebackers Chuck Howley and Lee Roy Jordon pressured Minnesota punter King Hill into a 24-yard punt in the third period. Morton went to work. He completed a 21-yard pass to Craig Baynham for a first down at the 13. After losing to the 20, Morton hit Baynham again for the 20-yard winning touchdown, allowing the Cowboys to beat the Vikings 17-13.
For the Cowboys, who had almost been a participant in Super Bowl I and II, they would go on to be in Super Bowl V, before winning their first League Title in Super Bowl VI. The Vikings would use their extra playoff lesson to launch a 12-2 record the following season, and by beating both the Rams (23-20) and the Browns (27-7), they would advance to Super Bowl IV, the first of their four Super Bowls.
And it all started with the 1968 playoff game that almost no one saw, and even few remember.