The histories of the Vikings and Steelers are not all that different. Both came to prominence in the 1970s with dominant, creatively-named defenses: Pittsburgh the “Steel Curtain” and Minnesota the “Purple People Eaters.” But these two franchises somehow have opposite resumes when it come to the Big Game; Pittsburgh is the winningest franchise in Super Bowl history with six wins while the Vikings are tied for the most losses without a win with four.
Today, we look at the only time they met in one of these games, Super Bowl IX.
This was a battle of the established giant versus the up-and-comer in the winter of 1975. A year prior, the talented Vikings squad suffered a crushing loss to the Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII by the score of 24-7 and they were seeking redemption. Future Hall of Famers Alan Page, Carl Eller and Paul Krause manned the “Purple People Eaters” defense while veteran quarterback Fran Tarkenton danced behind Hall of Fame linemen Mick Tinglehoff and Ron Yary.
Minnesota’s excellence on both sides of the football and coaching from Bud Grant helped them win their sixth division title in seven years. In the postseason, the defense surrendered just 24 total points and scored enough to largely coast into their second straight Super Bowl appearance.
The Steelers, on the other hand, had been a losing team throughout its franchise’s history. After hiring coach Chuck Noll in 1969, Pittsburgh made a complete turnaround. In the span of five years, Noll drafted “Mean Joe” Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, all of whom would end up in the Hall of Fame and set the base for the NFL dynasty of the 1970s.
Despite Bradshaw leading the Steelers to the postseason in the previous two seasons, Noll selected Joe Gilliam to start the first four games. Bradshaw had major interception issues early in his career before becoming the Terry Bradshaw we know today but he would ultimately figure his issues out and take over under center once again.
The Steelers survived a rough start with Harris running the ball and one of the all-time great defenses to finish with 10 wins and victories over the Bills and Raiders en route to their first of many Super Bowl appearances.
Due to the game being played in the outdoor Tulane Stadium in New Orleans rather than the uncompleted Louisiana Superdome, conditions were less than ideal. It had rained the night before and the temperature at kick-off was only 46 degrees, making it the second coldest Super Bowl ever.
Already a three-point favorite, the weather gave Pittsburgh a strong advantage. Both teams had great defenses but Minnesota’s offense relied heavily on throwing the ball and the scrambling abilities of quarterback Fran Tarkenton. The Steelers’ offense, on the other hand was built around Franco Harris and the running game.
The predicted defensive struggle manifested itself all game; the first score was a Viking safety in the 2nd quarter after Tarkenton fell on a fumbled pitch in the endzone. The 2-0 score held into halftime after a Tarkenton redzone interception with a minute left.
The second half started inauspiciously for Minnesota. The Steelers kicker slipped on the opening kickoff, resulting in a squib that Pittsburgh recovered well into Viking territory. Harris scored a couple of plays later.
Both teams exchanged turnovers through the third and fourth quarters. Minnesota got their first points by recovering a blocked punt in the endzone to cut the deficit to 9-6, but they missed the extra point meaning a field goal would only tie. However, the Steelers gave what would be the game’s only smooth offensive drive, going 66 yards on 11 plays and capping it off with a Bradshaw touchdown pass. Minnesota got the ball back but Tarkenton immediately threw his third interception of the game, sealing the win for Pittsburgh.
The story of the game started and ended with the team’s offensive gameplans: Pittsburgh ran the ball effectively, carrying 57 times for 249 yards. Harris ran for 158 of those yards and came away with game MVP. Tarkenton tried to carry the load as Minnesota ran only 21 times and threw 26 but Tarkenton completed well under 50 percent of his passes and was picked off three times.
This game was objectively one of the ugliest Super Bowls in history. Both teams looked bad offensively and traded turnover after turnover (there were seven total) and put a cap on a season of defensive dominance for the two historically great units.
Tarkenton lost three Super Bowls total in his illustrious career. Despite never winning the big one, he is still remembered as one of the all-time great passers. Tarkenton is credited with being one of the first gunslingers in NFL history, retiring as the all-time leader in passing yards, and he is widely considered to be the first successful “scrambling” quarterback in league history.
The Steelers would go on to win three more Super Bowls in the decade and five more overall. The Vikings would return two years later only to lose their fourth Super Bowl, this time to the Oakland Raiders. They have not returned since.
Next week, we will finally look at a positive moment in Viking history as we look back on the opening day of the 1998 season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.