The First St. Louis Cardinals’ Playoff Game

Pro football in the current day and age seems to produce one or two different Cinderella teams every year. But that was not always the case, however. In the 1970s, you might see one Cinderella team every two or three years. They just were not that common during that era. A definite Cinderella team was the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals. That season was not expected to bring a whole lot of success to the Cards. They had finished the previous three seasons with identical 4-9-1 records, and there were plenty of experts who suspected that a fourth straight losing campaign was going to be their lot in 1974. But the Cardinals surprised even themselves that year, as they somehow, someway, emerged after a tough 14-game regular season to claim the championship of the NFC’s Eastern Division, their first-ever postseason appearance as the team began playing pro football in the state of Missouri back in 1960. It was indeed a big accomplishment. But most people were laughing at the Cardinals from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, however, that laughing came to an abrupt halt.

1974 St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis’ impressive 10-4 record in 1974 was good enough to earn for them a division championship. Washington also finished that season with an equal 10-4 record, but the Cardinals owned the tiebreaker between the two teams, having beaten the Redskins twice during the year. The Cardinals were headed to the playoffs, and into unfamiliar territory. 

St. Louis was slated to travel north to Minnesota to play the defending NFC Champion Vikings. The Cardinals were not totally unfamiliar with the Norsemen, however. They had played Minnesota on Monday Night Football at Busch Memorial Stadium back on November 11. They lost that first meeting to the Vikes by a score of 28-24. But St. Louis at least got a taste of how to attack Minnesota on both offense and defense. That previous loss saw the Cards outgain the Vikes in total yardage, 436 to 304 yards. 

St. Louis also held an advantage in first downs in that contest, 23 to 18. Yes, that first meeting between the two teams only helped head coach Don Coryell’s players to prepare for their playoff game up at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, on December 21, 1974.

First Playoff Game For Cardinals

The playoff game showed the nation that the Cardinals were indeed able to handle the pressure that comes with your typical postseason game. After a scoreless first quarter, St. Louis took the lead on a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jim Hart to wide receiver Earl Thomas.

That early blow woke Minnesota up, and they managed to tie the game with a 16-yard scoring toss from their quarterback, the future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, to their most explosive wide receiver, John Gilliam, who previously played for the Cardinals. It was an evenly-matched first half, as both teams went into halftime with a 7-7 tie.

The second half would prove to be very different, however. It was as if the Vikings were only playing with half a tank of gas in the first half, and then they refueled up their tank during halftime. That was because, in the third quarter, they simply dominated and took over the game. All facets of their team showed up in the third and fourth quarters to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were better than St. Louis on this day.

Minnesota’s attack in the second half of this playoff game resembled a rolling snowball, which as it rolled downhill, gained in strength, and in volume, and in size, and in speed. The Cardinals would do whatever they could to stop one of the Vikings’ weapons, but as soon as they did, two more Minnesota players managed to do even worse damage to St. Louis. It did not take too long before it became very evident that the Cards were fighting a losing battle in the second half of this game.

Minnesota scored 23 straight points in the second half before St. Louis could regather its faculties to score once more near the end of the game, a game which ended with the final score of Vikings 30, Cardinals 14. The torrent of Minnesota’s second-half points began with a Fred Cox field goal, which followed a diving interception of a Jim Hart pass by Vikings safety Jeff Wright.

Another St. Louis turnover proved to be the most important one of their season. Cardinals tailback Terry Metcalf had the ball stripped from his grasp by Minnesota defensive end Carl Eller and defensive tackle Alan Page. Vikings cornerback Nate Wright picked up the loose ball and sprinted 20 yards for a score.

Minnesota now owned a 17-7 lead, and they improved on that a few minutes later when Tarkenton hit Gilliam again for another touchdown, this one coming on a deep 38-yard pass down the far sideline. The Vikings kept adding to the onslaught with a four-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter by halfback Chuck Foreman.

The Cardinals knew that all hopes for a victory had vanished by this time. Nevertheless, their prized offense, which had given them so many great moments all throughout the 1974 season, managed to give them one more. Terry Metcalf managed to run 11 yards up the gut late in the final quarter for the game’s closing points.

Minnesota moved on to the NFC Championship Game with a 30-14 victory over St. Louis. It was indeed a bitter pill for the young Cardinals team. Nevertheless, they were a bonafide Cinderella team. A very exciting Cinderella team, and one well worth remembering.

Host of Pro Football in the 1970s - Joe Zagorski

Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s.  Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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Joe Zagorski
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