January 3 is a day fans of the New Orleans Saints would rather forget for two major reasons.
The first occurred in 1988, when the Saints lost 44-10 to the Vikings in New Orleans’ first playoff game in franchise history.
The Saints finished the 1987 regular season 12-3, the second best record in the entire NFL, but they had to settle for a wild card berth to the playoffs because the 13-2 49ers were in the same division, the NFC West.
Prior to 1987, the Saints suffered through 18 losing seasons. Their best record was 8-8, achieved in 1979 and 1983. New Orleans was the birthplace of fans wearing bags on their heads, introduced during the abysmal 1-15 season of 1980.
In 1987, fans could rip the bags off–at least over the last nine games. The Saints lost three of their first six games, two of them to mediocre teams (Eagles and Cardinals) and one to the 49ers in the Superdome, a game in which Morten Andersen made five field goals, but missed his seventh attempt on the game’s final play, allowing San Francisco to escape 24-22.
The Saints should have been given kudos for coming close against the mighty 49ers, right?
Second-year Saints coach Jim Mora went nuclear. Three words sum it up best.
Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.
Mora stated he was tired of saying “coulda, woulda, shoulda”, and that the Saints weren’t good enough to beat the 49ers. Another famous line came when he said, “We’re close, and close don’t mean (bleep). And you can put that on TV for me.”
In 1987, there was SportsCenter, but the NFL Network was 16 years off. However, those of us in New Orleans got to see Mora’s tirade more than a few times, and nobody who grew up in New Orleans in the late 1980s will ever forget Mora’s postgame press conference of October 25, 1987.
Mora’s words must have had some effect on the Saints. New Orleans did not lose again in the regular season, ripping off nine consecutive victories, including a 26-24 decision at San Francisco three weeks later, a game which was won on a 52-yard field goal by Andersen, who last year became the second pure placekicker to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining former Kansas City legend Jan Stenerud, whose bust has been in Canton since 1991.
The Saints’ opponents in the NFC wild card game, the Vikings, were in the playoffs for the first time in five years. Jerry Burns, who was in his second year in charge in Minnesota, had one of the NFL’s best receivers, Anthony Carter, but an unsettled quarterback situation between the oft-injured Tommy Kramer and the inconsistent Wade Wilson. The Viking defense, although not up to the standards of the Purple Gang of the 1970s, was still formidable, thanks to Chris Doleman, Keith Millard, rookie Henry Thomas, Scott Studwell and Joey Browner.
Minnesota was put into a hole during the strike called by the NFL Players’ Association during the 1987 season. The owners called up replacement players to substitute for the regulars for three games in weeks 4-6 (week three was canceled), looking to avoid the repeat of the disastrous 1982 strike in which the season was reduced from 16 games to nine.
The Vikings’ replacement team laid a giant goose egg, losing to Green Bay, Chicago and Tampa Bay. New Orleans had better fortune, defeating the Rams and Bears while losing in St. Louis.
Minnesota got back on track when the strike ended, but in December, the Vikings lost to the Bears, Packers and Redskins, finishing 8-7. However, Minnesota snuck into the playoffs when Dallas defeated St. Louis in what turned out to be the Cardinals’ final game representing the Gateway City.
Most of the experts liked New Orleans to easily defeat Minnesota and move into a divisional playoff game in Chicago, where the Bears were hampered by bickering, inconsistency from quarterback Jim McMahon, and an aged Walter Payton, who ended up retiring after the 1987 season.
The Vikings had different ideas.
New Orleans grabbed an early 7-0 lead, but an 84-yard punt return touchdown by Carter turned the momentum permanently in the Vikings’ favor.
Minnesota rubbed salt in the wound on the final play of the first half when Wade Wilson connected with Hassan Jones on a 55-yard Hail Mary, a play which the Vikings received when the Saints were called for having 12 players on the field on what should have been the last play in the first half. A half cannot end on a defensive penalty, and the Vikings made the Saints pay the ultimate price.
It didn’t matter. The Vikings were up 24-10 before the Wilson-to-Jones heroics, and they added to the lead in the second half, ending up a 44-10 winner.
The next week, Carter torched the 49ers with 11 catches for 227 yards, a playoff record, in a 36-24 Viking victory at San Francisco. Minnesota came within an eyelash of its first Super Bowl since 1976, but Darrin Nelson dropped a potential game-tying touchdown at the goal line in the NFC championship game in Washington. The Redskins won 17-10, then obliterated John Elway’s Broncos in Super Bowl XXII with the famous 35-point second quarter.
Exactly five years later after the debacle vs. the Vikings, the Saints were again hosting an NFC wild card playoff game. The Saints went 12-4 in 1992, but had to settle for second in the NFC West behind the 14-2 49ers, who swept the season series from New Orleans, negating San Francisco’s loss to the 4-12 Cardinals.
New Orleans was still in search of its first playoff victory when the Eagles invaded the Crescent City on January 3, 1993. The Saints made the playoffs as an 8-8 wild card in 1990 before losing to the Bears in Chicago, then lost to the Falcons at home after capturing the NFC West in 1991, the Saints’ first division title.
Philadelphia entered the 1992 playoffs riding a five-game postseason losing streak, a skid which started in New Orleans when the Eagles lost 27-10 to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV.
One factor working in the Eagles’ favor was Buddy Ryan was no longer coaching them. Ryan lost playoff games in three consecutive seasons between 1988-90, and combined with Ryan’s hatred of his offense despite the heroics of quarterback Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia owner Norman Braman had seen enough and showed Ryan the door.
Rich Kotite had the Eagles in the playoffs after missing out in 1991 despite a 10-6 record. Philadelphia defeated New Orleans 15-13 at Veterans Stadium in the season opener, and that led to the pundits splitting right down the middle as to whether the Eagles or Saints would advance to face the Cowboys in Dallas.
Through three quarters, the Saints led 20-7. It looked like the Saints would finally win a playoff game, and the Eagles would once again choke in the clutch.
Unfortunately for the Saints, football games are four periods.
In the fourth quarter, the Eagles stunned not only the 70,000 in the Superdome, but millions of football fans watching on television by ripping off 29 unanswered points to win 36-20.
Fortunately for the Saints, few outside Louisiana noticed their collapse.
Mora and his players had the Houston Oilers to thank.
Earlier that day, the Oilers built a 35-3 lead early in the third quarter in Buffalo, only to completely collapse and allow the Bills to rally and win 41-38 in overtime.
The Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997 and changed their name to the Titans in 1999. The franchise is still searching for its first Super Bowl title. So are the Bills, who lost Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII to the Cowboys after losing XXV to the Giants and XXVI to the Redskins.
Minnesota has lost three more NFC championship games since 1987 (1998, 2000 and 2017).
New Orleans finally shook the playoff monkey in 2000, and won Super Bowl XLIV nine years later. Philadelphia is the reigning Super Bowl champion, the first title for the Eagles since 1960.
Here’s hoping the Saints can live up to the pressure of the NFL’s best team during the regular season and bring home the Vince Lombardi trophy from Atlanta one month from tonight.