The Minnesota Vikings had the ball on the Redskins’ 6-yard line with 56 seconds left in regulation.
The down and distance was 4th-and-4, but the Vikings were looking for the touchdown.
They trailed the Redskins 17-10 in the 1987 NFC Championship game at RFK Stadium on Jan. 17, 1988.
A trip to Super Bowl XXII hung in the balance.
A Viking touchdown would likely send the game to overtime. A Redskins’ defensive stop would likely send them to San Diego, where the Super Bowl was held that year.
Several options were available to the Vikings. Two of the most elusive wide receivers in the NFL, Anthony Carter, a Pro Bowler, and Leo Lewis both lined up on the outside. Lewis went in motion. Running back Darrin Nelson, who could catch the ball out of the backfield as easily as he could run it, lined up behind quarterback Wade Wilson.
The Vikings called "Smoke 83 Option," a play that would use Carter as a decoy in the corner of the end zone and would have Nelson in a one-on-one situation with linebacker Monte Coleman just past the goal line.
Wilson dropped back to pass and found Nelson, who had eluded Coleman as planned. What the Vikings didn’t count on was Redskins’ all-everything cornerback Darrell Green.
One week after returning the biggest punt of his life -- a 52-yard touchdown at Chicago to propel the Redskins to a 21-17 win -- Green made possibly the biggest defensive play of his epic 20-year career. Carter was forced into the wrong pattern, leaving Green in position to cover him and make the play.
Green, who had played the whole game with sore ribs suffered on that punt return a week earlier, collided with Nelson as soon as the ball hit the running back in the chest. The ball popped out of Nelson’s hands and Green knocked the ball away.
And the Redskins were Super Bowl-bound.
As fascinating as the conclusion of the NFC Championship game was, it was even more fascinating to see how both teams got to that point.
The Redskins entered the playoffs as champions of the NFC East with an 11-4 record. The record was a little skewed by a 3-0 showing by replacement players during a 24-day players strike earlier in the season.
Nonetheless, the Redskins were on a roll. They won four of the last five regular-season games, including a 27-24 comeback win in overtime at Minnesota in the season finale on the day after Christmas.
The Redskins earned a first-round bye and on Jan. 10, 1988, entered Chicago’s Soldier Field as underdogs to the Bears.
Down 14-0 in the second quarter, quarterback Doug Williams, who had been inserted into the lineup during the regular-season finale against Minnesota, led the Redskins back in the second quarter.
His 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Clint Didier late in the second quarter tied the game at 14-14.
Green’s punt return early in the third quarter put the Redskins up 21-14 and they held on to win by a score of 21-17.
The Redskins had won a playoff game at Soldier Field for the second straight year and became the first team in the modern NFL era to play a divisional playoff game on the road and host the conference title game the following week.
In 1987, Minnesota posted their best record in five years at 8-7. The Vikings earned the fifth playoff spot in the NFC (in a time when there were only five playoff spots available).
Minnesota faced the daunting task of playing the 12-3 New Orleans Saints in the Superdome for the NFC Wild Card game. That proved to be no problem for Vikings’ head coach Jerry Burns and his players, as they rolled in Louisiana, 44-10.
Next up? The San Francisco 49ers, who had the NFL’s best record at 13-2, in Candlestick Park. The Vikings’ offense clicked again as they pulled off a stunning upset, winning 36-24.
This set the stage for the NFC Championship game between the two teams who weren’t supposed to be there. RFK Stadium had hosted three previous NFC Championship Games in 1972, 1983 and 1984.
The 55,212 fans on hand weren’t about to let the purple and gold of the Vikings head to San Diego.
The Redskins were obviously concerned about the combined 80 points that the Vikings had put up against two of the NFC’s elite teams on the road in consecutive weeks. Green’s sore ribs were also a concern for the Redsins’ defense, which needed an answer to Carter and Lewis.
Green did not feel confident that he could perform at his best.
"I think I can play the whole game," Green told reporters the day before the game.
It turned out that Green and the other defensive backs didn’t have too much to worry about. The Redskins’ defensive line and blitzing linebackers pressured Wilson all afternoon; he was sacked eight times, one short of the NFC title game record.
Redskins’ defensive tackle Dave Butz led the way with two sacks, while Dexter Manley had a 1.5 sacks. Seven different Redskins registered sacks, including nickel back Clarence Vaughn and strong safety Alvin Walton.
Wilson said that the Redskins brought everybody who was anybody into the pass rush. The strategy worked as the Vikings struggled offensively.
The Redskins opened up the day’s scoring with 4:07 left to go in the first quarter when Williams threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to running back Kelvin Bryant. The score had been set up by a 28-yard reverse to wide receiver Rickey Sanders earlier in the drive.
Two missed field goals from Redskins kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh (38 and 47 yards) kept Minnesota in the game and with two minutes left in the first half, the Vikings tied it up when Wilson threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Lewis.
With 4:30 left in the third quarter, the Redskins took advantage of an interception by linebacker Mel Kaufman -- who caught the ball after it had been batted in the air by Butz -- and Haji-Sheikh redeemed himself with a 28-yard field goal to give the Redskins the 10-7 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings threatened to take their first lead of the game. They were in a first-and-goal situation at the Redskins’ 3-yard line.
The Vikings handed the ball to fullback Rick Fenney twice and rookie running back D.J. Dozier once, but the Redskins’ defense kept them out of the end zone.
Vikings kicker Chuck Nelson tied the game at 10-10 with an 18-yard field goal with 10:06 left in regulation.
Head coach Joe Gibbs would later refer to this goal-line stand as the "key" to the Redskins victory.
The Redskins drove right down the field on the following drive, which was capped by a 7-yard pass from Williams to wide receiver Gary Clark in the end zone.
It gave the Redskins a 17-10 lead with 5:15 left in regulation -- and it set up one of the most famed defensive stands in Redskins history.
A situation like this would have rattled a younger team, but not the veteran Redskins.
"There was more pressure on the sideline than there was out on the field," Green told reporters after the game.
The Vikings took the ball back with 5:04 left to play and 67 yards away from the end zone. The offense was hot.
A combination of throws from Wilson to Lewis, Carter and Nelson -- with some runs sprinkled in -- put the ball on the Redskins’ 12-yard line with 1:12 left.
On first down, Carter caught his final pass of the day to put the ball on the Redskins’ 6-yard line.
Wilson threw two consecutive incomplete passes. He threw away a second-down pass when blitzed by linebacker Neal Olkewicz. On third down, he overthrew tight end Steve Jordan.
At that point, Gibbs took off his headset, dropped to his knees in prayer and watched the most celebrated defensive back in Redskins history make a play that put the Redskins back in the Super Bowl after a four-year absence.