In their storied history, the Dallas Cowboys have clinched the NFC Eastern (or, from 1967-69, Capitol) Division crown a total of twenty times. On several occasions, they have clinched the title with several games left to play; in 2007, if you'll recall, after a thrilling early December 28-27 comeback victory over the Lions, the East was theirs with three games left to play. On other occasions, however, the race for a division title comes down to the final minute.
Dallas' 1979 division title offered just such a test case, with a game and a season that came down to the final moments of a cold December afternoon contest in Texas Stadium. Coming into the game, the Cowboys and Eagles, both playoff teams in 1978, were tied at 10-5 with the surprising Redskins, a .500 squad the previous year. The Cowboys had started the year 7-1 before losing four of five games in late October and November, one of which was an unexpected 34-20 defeat at Washington in which Dallas outgained their hated rivals by a comfortable margin but suffered a -5 turnover differential. The Cowboys had righted the ship in December, however, and, thanks to a huge week fifteen win at Philadelphia, had an opportunity to clinch the NFC East title and a first-round playoff bye with a victory.
With so much on the line, the Cowboys nonetheless came out of the gate sleeping rather than swinging. On their initial possession, they ran only two plays before turning the ball over when rookie fullback Ron Springs's fumble was recovered by linebacker Brad Dusek at the Cowboy 34. After a less-than-impressive 10-play drive, the Washington's offense faced a second-and-goal on the Dallas three, but a Larry Cole sack of Joe Theismann helped to force the Redskins to settle for a 24-yard Mark Moseley field goal.
This ignominious history repeated itself on the Cowboys' second drive as veteran fullback Robert Newhouse fumbled at the Redskins' 45 and a Dusek recovery again gave Washington possession. This time, the ‘Skins wasted little time, with Theismann hitting a 39-yard pass and John Riggins running for 14 off right tackle. On second down at the one, Theismann faked a handoff and took the ball to the flag for a 10-0 lead halfway through the first quarter.
How did the Cowboys climb out of that early hole? Make the jump to find out!
To heighten the problem, the Redskins hit the stunned Cowboys with an 80 yard, 7-play drive capped by their longest scoring play of the season. Theismann fired a quick pass over the middle to running back Benny Malone, who was a step ahead of Cowboy linebacker D.D. Lewis, and remained so all the way down the right sideline on a 55-yard touchdown to up the margin to 17-0. With just more than a quarter elapsed, it looked like a Redskins blowout in the making.
The slumbering Dallas offense seemingly woke up at that point, grinding out a methodical 70 yard, 13-play drive during which Springs began to atone for his earlier fumble by nabbing 14-and 10-yard Staubach passes and picking up another ten on a nifty reverse. It was therefore fitting that he finished off the drive with a one-yard plunge, getting Dallas on the board with 4:41 on the clock.
But they weren't through. After forcing a Redskins punt, the Cowboys took possession at their own 15 with 1:48 left before intermission. Staubach and his receivers began to hook up for big gains; he went to Tony Hill for consecutive 21, 11 and 13 yard gains, then connected with Drew Pearson for 20 more to the Washington 16 with 20 seconds remaining in the half. After two incompletions and a holding penalty, however, things looked dire. Staubach, facing a third and 20, went to third down specialist deluxe Preston Pearson, who made a beautiful diving catch in the end zone with nine ticks left. Rafael Septien's second conversion narrowed the Washington advantage to 17-14.
In the third quarter, the Cowboys offense picked up where they left off, and their defense began to click, shutting down the Washington attack. After a piddly 31-yard Redskins punt, the Cowboys took over at their own 48 yard line and immediately launched a nine-play scoring drive. Springs and Newhouse combined efforts for one first down, Staubach hit Hill for twelve more, and a sweet Butch Johnson reverse gained 13 to the Redskin 15. Soon thereafter, Preston Pearson took a nine-yard pass to the two. As Springs had done previously, Newhouse made amends for his first quarter fumble, scoring from the two yard line to give the Cowboys a 21-17 lead.
The resurgent Cowboys, with their defense playing brilliantly, shut out the Redskins attack for the remainder of the third stanza, and looked to have wrested control of the game from their hated division rivals. But the Redskins refused to die; taking possession following a Danny White punt early in the fourth period, Theismann methodically guided his charges downfield, behind four completions and four Riggins runs, to the Cowboy seven. On third and inches, a play-action pass into the end zone just missed the outstretched fingers of ‘Skins back Clarence Harmon, and Washington had to settle for a 24-yard Mosely field goal to pull within a single point at 21-20.
On the Cowboys' next possession, Staubach, facing a third-and-11 at his own 13, went deep over the middle with no apparent receiver in sight and Redskins free safety Mark Murphy stepped in front of the errant toss, returning it all the way to the Dallas 25. On the next play, Cowboys safety Cliff Harris was called for pass interference after bumping ‘Skins receiver Thompson in the end zone, placing the ball at the one. Riggins then powered off right tackle for a score and a 27-21 Redskins lead.
Momentum had suddenly swung over to the team sporting the NFL's ugliest uniforms (maroon and gold? yeeech), and momentum has a way of piling on. After defensive end Karl Lorch sacked Staubach on the next series, forcing a punt, Washington took over at its 31 with 7:52 to play. On a poorly-blocked second down draw play, Riggins looked like he was going nowhere, but then cut to the right, outran linebacker Mike Hegman, bounced off a tackle attempt by Cliff Harris 10 yards downfield, and won a footrace with safety Dennis Thurman for a 66-yard touchdown dash that upped the Redskins' lead to 34-21.
That margin appeared safe when, on the Cowboys' next drive, Staubach was sacked by Joe Jones and Dallas had to punt, giving Washington the ball on the Cowboy 48 with 5:21 to go and a two-score advantage. On first down, Dallas appeared to catch a break when Riggins fumbled, but the ball was recovered by Washington. But, as they should, the football gods favored the Cowboys; two plays later, Harmon, striving for the first down, fumbled and Randy White recovered at the Cowboy 41 with 3:49 left. The Cowboys still had a heartbeat, albeit a faint one.
Staubach began to get their collective blood pumping with a lightning-fast, three-play drive that consisted of fourteen and 19 yard strikes to Johnson and Hill, respectively, and a 26-yard scoring shot over the middle to Springs, who took the pass at the five and literally dragged cornerback Ray Waddy into the end zone. After the Septien extra point, Dallas trailed 34-28 with 2:20 left in the contest.
Washington needed a single first down to all but clinch the victory. After a dropped a screen pass, an eight-yard Riggins run gave the ‘Skins a third and short at the two-minute warning. Coming out of the break, they lined up in a power formation, and sent Riggins to the right side but, in one of the most famous plays in Cowboys history, the long-in-the-tooth Cole found the fountain of youth. Cole lined up at left defensive tackle over right guard Brian Willaims, who tried to pull around the right side, with center Ted Fritsch sliding down to take Cole. But Cole burst into the gap left when Williams pulled, and Fritsch could not get there to stop Cole, who deftly sliced into the backfield to throw Riggo for a two-yard loss. After the ensuing punt, the Cowboys stood 106 seconds and 75 yards away from an NFC Eastern Division title.
Staubach quickly went to work, finding Hill for 20 yards. After an incompletion, Roger the Dodger ducked an oncoming pass rusher and connected with Preston Pearson for 22 more. On the next play, he tried to go deep, but overthrew Hill in the end zone. So, with 1:01 left, he threaded the needle to Pearson again; the do-everything back made a scintillating over-the-shoulder catch for a 25-yard gain to the Washington eight. After Waddy broke up a first-down throw, Dallas faced a pressure-packed second and goal.
The Redskins opted to blitz four. Reading this, Staubach went away from the play's primary receiver, tight end Billy Joe DuPree, to Hill, who was being covered tightly at the line of scrimmage by veteran CB Lemar Parrish. Because of the blitz, Parrish's first responsibility was to defend the inside; Hill's route took him outside, to the back corner of the end zone. Ahead of the lunging defender, Hill gathered in the ball as the Texas Stadium crowd went ballistic (and a young rabblerousr, listening on the car radio, hit his head in the ensuing celebration).
Injured Cowboys safety Charlie Waters, who called the game on the radio with Brad Sham (it was only Sham;'s second game ad the play-by-play man; Vern Lundquist, the regular p-b-p guy, was in Japan on assignment, so Sham moved over and Waters was the "color commentator" for two games) spent the fourth quarter repeating "You Gotta Believe." With the Cowboys back in the lead, he chastized Sham for his lack of belief when things were at their darkest. Such was the effect Staubach had on his teammates, even injured ones: they never imagined they were out of a game with him at the helm.
But the game, and the drama, was not yet finished. After the ensuing kickoff return, the ‘Skins had the ball at their own 27 with 33 seconds left. After a holding call and two incompletions brought about by heavy pressure by Harvey Martin, Theismann eluded another strong rush, pulled up just before the line of scrimmage and passed toward tight end Don Warren at midfield. Rookie Dallas DB Aaron Mitchell, seeing that Warren was wide open, mugged him, drawing an interference penalty that gave Washington a first down just past midfield.
With nine seconds remaining, the Redskins had time for perhaps two plays. After an incompletion, another pass to Warren over the middle was followed by frenzied attempts to call time out before time expired. The referees ruled that the clock hit zero before time out was called, and the game was over.
For Washington kicker Moseley, the end of the game was particularly trying. First, he was forced to watch helplessly as time ran out before he could attempt a game-winning field goal. Then, walking off the field, a fan spit in his face. To add further insult, when the Redskins returned to the locker room, they learned that they had been eliminated from the playoffs altogether. An anemic Chicago offense had somehow managed a season-high points total in a 42-6 win over the hapless Cardinals. The Redskins had taken a comfortable 33-point net points margin into this final day of the regular season. By winning so handily, however, the Bears captured the final NFC wild-card spot by the wafer-thin margin of four net points.
Hearing this, Harvey Martin, in a moment celebrated in Cowboys-Redskins lore, lobbed a black funeral wreath, sent to the Cowboys by an anonymous Redskins fan before the game, into the visiting locker room. It ricocheted off a locker and hit Moseley in the knee, leaving a gash.
Hill's game-winning catch was the perfect capstone to a day in which he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. He finished the game with eight catches for 113 yards. Preston Pearson added five for 108 (for a formidable 21.6 YPC!). In addition to bringing Dallas from behind not once but twice, Staubach had his second-most productive day in a Cowboys uniform, hitting on 24 of 42 passes for 336 yards and three scores, giving him a career-best 27 on the season). It the 14th time Staubach turned defeat to victory in a game's final two minutes and the 21st time he guided the team to a fourth-quarter win.
Alas, it would also prove to be his last. Although the victory earned the Cowboys a week off before a home playoff game, they were upset 21-19 by a Rams club that can only be described as mediocre. After a 50-yard scoring play gave the Rams the lead at the two-minute mark, Staubach had yet another chance to add to his legend, but his comeback attempt fell short. The Rams defense forced a sack, and then, under pressure, number twelve completed his final professional pass...illegally. It was not to a member of his deep wideout corps, nor to one of his scintillating running backs, but to offensive lineman Herb Scott. On fourth down, he overthrew Tony Hill, and an era in Dallas had ended.
But before going out with a whimper, Staubach ended with a bang, in the greatest, most thrilling, nerve-wracking regular season game in Cowboys history.
Want to see the Cowboys comeback? Here are highlights from the final 5:54. Enjoy!