As promised, its Friday, so we're due to pick up our rundown of the top ten regular season games in Cowboys history. Before moving on, I must confess that my top ten looks a lot more like a top fifteen. In past weeks, I have combined similar games (two opening games at Washington or two Thursday contests vs. the Packers) into one post in an effort at shoehorning some more of the most memorable contests onto our list. This week, for example, I'm cramming three games into one post. In my defense, they all fall within a tight narrative frame.
Since 1991, the Cowboys have thrice faced an undefeated opponent with at least nine wins; each time, Dallas has dealt them their first loss of the season. In 1991, a reeling but up-and-coming Cowboys squad went to Washington and beat an 11-0 Redskins team; in 2006, in Tony Romo's fourth career start, they defeated the 9-0 Colts 21-14; in 2009, a teetering 8-5 Dallas team traveled into a hostile New Orleans Superdome and saved its season with a 24-17 victory over the 13-0 Saints. In a sidenote, all three of the Cowboys' previously undefeated opponents went on to cap their respective seasons by winning a Lombardi. We'll move chronologically, starting in 1991:
1991: 6-5 Cowboys 24, 11-0 Redskins 21
On November 24, 1991, the Cowboys traveled to Washington to face the 11-0 Redskins, who had been steamrolling opponents by an average score of 33-13. Dallas, meanwhile was on the third leg of a three-game roadtrip, and had lost the first two contests, 26-23 to the Oilers and 22-9 to the Giants to fall to 6-5. No pressure: on the road, against an undefeated team, with the season in the balance.
Before the game, Jimmy Johnson told his team that they were going to go after the Redskins with everything in their arsenal. "When you go up against a big gorilla," he said, "you don't hit him lightly. You hit him with everything you got!" Indeed, Johnson delivered on his promise: he called a draw play on third and long (resulting in an Emmitt Smith touchdown); he went for it on multiple fourth downs (Dallas converted three of four fourth downs); he tried an onside kick early in the second quarter; and he called a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the first half. His aggressive approach sent Washington reeling, and the ‘Skins looked off-balance all afternoon.
A detailed recap plus two other blasts from the past after the jump...
Cornerback Martin Mayhew, now the Lions GM, opened the scoring with a 31-yard interception return of a Troy Aikman pass to give the Redskins a 7-0 lead with 4:53 left in the first quarter. The Cowboys tied it on their first possession of the second quarter by driving 75 yards, with Smith getting the final 32 on the aforementioned third-and-15 draw play.
But hat wasn't the first gutsy call. On fourth and five from the Washington 33, Johnson passed up a field goal and Aikman hit Irvin for six yards. After the touchdown, Johnson gambled again, calling for an onside kick. Kicker Ken Willis's squibbly boot was recovered reserve linebacker Darrick Brownlow. Although the Cowboys' gamble didn't result in points, it served to establish a tone: they were going to go after that big gorilla.
They took another shot as the first half wound down, after Aikman had driven the Cowboys 32 yards to the Washington 34. On fourth and seven with 13 seconds left, Johnson passed up the field goal and Aikman lobbed a prayer into the right corner of the end zone. Players from both teams leapt to catch the ball, which was taken down by rookie wideout Alvin Harper, the defending SEC high-jump champion. Just like that, the Cowboys led 14-7 at the half.
The second half began inauspiciously for Dallas. On the sixth play after the break, Aikman was sandwiched between two big, ugly Redskins defensive linemen, damaging his left knee (in what proved to se a season-ending injury). Dallas fans groaned, recalling the end of the 1990 season in which the team failed to make the playoffs thanks to another Aikman injury. 1991 was different, however, thanks to offseason pickup Steve Beuerlein.
The veteran quarterback picked up from the Raiders came into the game and, once he got into the flow of the game, picked up where Aikman left off. On Buerlein's third possession, he completed four straight passes, leading Dallas on an 81-yards six play drive punctuated by Michael Irvin's ridiculous 23-yard touchdown catch, in which Beuerlein threw the ball behind Irvin, who caught it and bobbled it, caught it again and ran to the outside and easily into the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 13:32 left.
With desperation setting in, the Washington offense seemingly awakened. QB Mark Rypien led them on a a 92-yard drive, with Gerald Riggs scoring on a one-yard run to make it 21-14 with 8:21 left. With momentum against them, however, the Cowboys took the ball and stuffed it down the ‘Skins' throats. Beuerlein hit Harper for 16, then Smith then picked up gains of seven, two, four and four before being dropped for a loss of three with 4:04 left.
Then, in what was perhaps the biggest play of the day, Irvin edged in front of All-World cornerback Darrell Green for a 13-yard slant and a first down at the Washington 30. Smith carried it five more times, and with 1:14 left, Willis sealed the game with a field goal that started outside and then wove its way back inside the uprights. Rypien hit Ricky Sanders for a meaningless 29-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left to make it 24-21
The final score didn't reflect Dallas' dominance on the day. Aikman and Beuerlein combined to pass for 313 yards, a season high against the Redskins; Smith rushed for 132 on 34 carries, also a season-high; Irvin caught nine passes for 130 yards, most of it against Green. But the real story was the Dallas "D." Before the Redskins futile fourth-quarter rally, they had held the league's most prolific offense to a mere 107 total yards.
Riding the momentum from the stunning victory, the Cowboys went on to win the rest of their regular-season games to secure a wild-card spot, scratching out a 17-13 win against the Bears in Chicago before being embarrassed in Detroit 38-6. That late season run provided further momentum heading into the 1992 season. You all remember how that one played out, right?
Here is the game recap:
2006: 5-4 Cowboys 21, 9-0 Colts 14
Coming in to the game, the Colts, the first team in NFL history to start consecutive seasons with 9-0, had all the earmarks of a juggernaut. Unlike 2005, a season in which they started 13-0, the Colts had spent their 2006 run escaping close calls: two 1-point wins over bad teams at home and five other wins by less than a touchdown. Moreover their defense was banged up and had been ineffectual for most of the season. In short, they were a vulnerable 9-0.
Their vulnerability was immediately apparent; the Colts were off-kilter from the start. Marvin Harrison lost his first fumble since 2004 on Indianapolis' first series, then Manning lost his first fumble of the year on the next drive. Moreover, Manning was sacked twice that possession, unusual for a guy who'd been sacked only 10 times all year.
Like the Colts, the Cowboys weren't particularly crisp coming out of the locker room. On Dallas' opening drive, Romo lost a fumble on a Dwight Freeney sack, then threw an interception soon after. And Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, missed two 1st-half field goals against his former team. Indeed, with four minutes left in the first half, the score was knotted at 0-0.
Manning soon rectified that, putting Indianapolis ahead 7-0 on a long drive just before halftime. When the Colts received the ball to start the second half, they threatened to open up a two-score lead, but Manning's second pass of the half was picked off by Kevin Burnett, who wove his way downfield for a rather miraculous 39-yard TD return.
At this point, the game was still an ugly defensive battle; however, Manning and Romo soon started looking like the league's two top-rated quarterback (which they were coming into the game). Manning drove the Colts 80 yards in 10 plays, then Romo answered with a 15-play, 68-yard drive that milked 8:33 off the clock, with Marion Barber running the final five yards to knot the score at 14. Then, after a Colts 3-and-out, Romo let the Cowboys on their best drive of the game, a 7-play, 80-yarder that started with completions of 19 and 33 yards to Terry Glenn and was capped by a 1-yard run by Marion Barber. 21-14 Cowboys.
Looking to tie the game, Manning drove to the Dallas 8, with the big play a 38-yard pass to Harrison. But Indy couldn't capitalize; Manning overthrew Ben Utecht on 3rd & 2 and heaved it out of the end zone on 4th & 2, and the Cowboys got the ball with just under three minutes remaining. Romo took over at the 2 and quickly got the Cowboys across midfield. The victory was sealed with a 3rd down conversion to Glenn with 2:09 left, allowing Dallas to run out the clock.
Throughout the afternoon, the Cowboys generated pressure on Manning and rattled him, sacking him twice and forcing him into an uncharacteristically mistake-filled performance. He was 20 of 39 (his most incompletions of the season) for 254 yards with two touchdowns his first 2-interception game in 2006. On the other hand, Romo, coming off a performance that earned him the NFC offensive player of the week award, was 19-23 for 226 yards and was spectacular on the Cowboys' final three drives. As a result, he became the first QB to defeat a team with a record of 7-0 or better with as few as three prior starts in the NFL.
One of the game's storylines was the fact that Dallas' defense was able to generate so much pressure a week after losing OLB Greg Ellis for the season with an Achilles injury. Sadly, Ellis' absence would be felt most poignantly in the season's final month, when the "D" was rocked for 132 points in their final four games. For one game, however, they were able to cover for the veteran pass rusher (and the best bookend DeMarcus Ware ever had).
Click here to view the video highlights from NFL Network.
2009: 8-5 Cowboys 24, 13-0 Saints 17
Leading up to this December contest in the Big Easy, things weren't looking good for the Cowboys. The sported a woeful 3-8 record in December under Wade Phillips; the Saints had been superb, particularly on offense, scoring 38 or more points in six of their thirteen games and averaged a staggering 35.8 per game. Moreover, Dallas' best defender, DeMarcus Ware, had been carted off the field and taken to the hospital a week earlier after what looked like a serious neck injury in Dallas' loss to San Diego. The rabid New Orleans faithful were looking forward to a prime time blowout.
Thankfully, the Saints had been slow starters all season, a trend that continued as Dallas dominated early, scoring on its first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead on a beautiful 49-yard bomb to Miles Austin off of play action from a heavy set and a 4-yard Marion Barber run on 1st and goal.
After the Saints answered with a field goal, the Dallas defense rose up. First, Mike Jenkins picked off Brees inside the Dallas ten; then, with less than a minute remaining in the half, Ware strip-sacked Brees, the Cowboys recovered and, a handful of plays later, kicked a field goal for a 17-3 halftime lead.
After Dallas went up 24-3 on Marion Barber 's second short TD run of the game in the third quarter, the high-powered Saints began to rev its engines. Mike Bell 's 1-yard run made it 24-10 with 12:35 to go. Brees followed that by capping a seven-play, 70-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore with 8 minutes left, cutting New Orleans' deficit to 24-17.
That left it up to the Saints' defense to hold once more. Facing a deafening crowd and a third-and-7 on the Dallas 23, Romo found Austin on a short crossing route for a 32-yard gain. Then, on the next play, Romo spun away from the rush and hit tight end John Phillips for a 23-yard gain to the New Orleans 22. From there, Dallas played it close to the vest, setting up a Nick Folk game-sealing field goal attempt.
However, Folk's kick bounced off the upright, reminding the crowd of a game two weeks prior, when the Redskins' Sean Suisham missed a game-winning chippie in a contest the Saints went on to win in overtime. For the Saints faithful, it appeared history was going to repeat itself. When Brees converted a frantic fourth down on a pass to Marques Colston, who made a terrific one-handed catch, a repeat performance seemed a certainty.
But it was not to be. Down to one final play, Brees sought to engineer a 42-yard desperation heave into the end zone, but he was stripped by Ware for the second time in the game. Jay Ratliff was Johnny-on-the-spot, recovering the ball and silencing the packed Superdome while the Cowboys leapt in the air and embraced one another. At home, I jumped up and down wildly, scaring my cat.
As was the case in 1991, the win at New Orleans provided the impetus for a December run and a wild-card round playoff victory, this one a 34-14 shellacking of the hated Eagles. Unfortunately, the next playoff round also followed suit, as Dallas was pounded by the Vikings 34-3. Regardless, I'll always remember that as the night that DeMarcus Ware, with his inspiring performance, vaulted into the pantheon of all-time Cowboys greats.
Check out this substantial highlight reel:
If you want to watch the game in its entirety, begin here.
Whew. That was a lot of great action. Join us again next Friday, when we climb higher into the historical stratosphere with a look at the #3 game on our list.