Can Dallas overcome their one-time playoff nemesis?
When the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams face off against each other Saturday night it will be the ninth post-season meeting between the two longtime NFL franchises. In fact, after Saturday the Cowboys will have played the L.A. Rams in more post-season games than any other franchise. Here’s the Cowboys’ top five playoff opponents:
For younger Cowboys fans it might come as a surprise that the Cowboys and Rams have such an extensive playoff history. After all it’s been 33 years since they met in the post-season (boy do I feel old).
But there was a time when a Cowboys/Rams playoff match-up was virtually an annual affair. From the 1973 to 1985 season they met eight times, with each team prevailing four times. I’m going to rank each game from a Cowboys fan perspective, from worst to best.
8. 1979: Rams 21 – Cowboys 19
The 1979 Cowboys entered the season at the height of “America’s Team” frenzy. They had won the Super Bowl in 1977 and come oh-so-close to repeating in 1978 before succumbing 35-31 to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.
They won the NFC East for the fourth time in a row in 1979, but they were not quite as good as they had been. While the Roger Staubach-led offense finished fifth in points scored and second in total yards, the defense finished 12th in points allowed and eighth in yards allowed.
The team had started 7-1 before losing four of five games to stand 8-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs. They rebounded to win their games in weeks 14 and 15 to set up a week 16 showdown against hated rival Washington for the #1 seed in the conference (the loser relegated to a wild card entry).
Dallas had perhaps the most exciting regular season game in franchise history. Roger Staubach twice led the team back from double-digit deficits, including overcoming a 13-point lead in the final two minutes. Thus, when the team entered the playoffs for a division round home game against the Rams, fans assumed an ho-hum victory was assured.
Things simply didn’t go as planned. The Cowboys trailed 14-5 at halftime after Vince Ferragamo teamed up with Ron Smith for a 43-yard touchdown pass with only a few seconds remaining the first half (Randy White destroyed Ferragamo on the play).
Dallas managed to come back and led 19-14 with under three minutes remaining. Throwing from mid-field with 2:16 remaining, Ferragamo threw a pass down the middle of the field that was tipped by Cowboys’ linebacker Mike Hegman directly into the arms of a crossing Billy Waddy who raced untouched into the end zone for a stunning game-winning touchdown.
Fans (including myself) expected Staubach to march the team down for a victory but the Cowboys couldn’t get a single first down, Staubach completing his last pass to guard Herb Scott (an ineligible receiver) in a heartbreaking, bitter defeat.
Staubach would retire several months later and the Cowboys would slowly descend from perennial Super Bowl contender (late 70’s) to a good team that couldn’t win the big one (early 80’s) to also ran (mid 80’s) to doormat (late 80’s).
Fans watching that day had no idea we were witnessing the end of an era.
7. 1976 season: Rams 14 – Cowboys 12
The Cowboys entered 1976 with high hopes. They had come off a near-Super Bowl win the previous year, had a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime and a terrific mix of proven veterans and talented youth. They started 5-0 and pretty much cruised to an NFC East division title and a first-round home match-up against the Rams.
The Rams entered the contest having never won a road playoff game. Honestly, I can remember the general feeling among fans being this was just a warm-up for another trip to Minnesota to take on the Vikings (with an 11-2-1 record).
The game itself was ugly, reminiscent of early 70’s NFL games. Depending upon your viewpoint it either featured oppressive defense or anemic offense. The Cowboys offense never got untracked and Roger Staubach played a terrible game. He finished 15 of 37 for only 150 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions (imagine that line for a Hall of Fame quarterback).
The Cowboys only hope came from two blocked punts by Charlie Waters (who also had an interception), including one with 1:59 that set the Cowboys up at the Rams’ 18-yard line down 14-10.
Staubach just didn’t have it however. A first-down pass to the end zone just missed a diving Butch Johnson. A second-down attempt for an open Preston Pearson wasn’t near the target. A third-down attempt at the corner of the end zone landed so far out of bounds it couldn’t be seen on the video where the ball landed. Staubach managed to complete the fourth-down attempt to tight end Billy Joe Dupree for a seeming first down. Dupree, however, was pushed back two yards and a terrible spot put the ball a yard short of the marker and the Cowboys season was over. (I can remember the Dallas Morning News posting a front-page picture showing Dupree, with the ball, standing at the six-yard line while the ball was eventually spotted at the eight. Had instant replay existed in 1976 there’s no doubt the Cowboys would have been awarded a first down at the six-yard line. However, I have much doubt the Cowboys would have converted that into a game-winning touchdown considering how much trouble they had moving the ball that day).
The Rams would eventually take a safety on purpose to avoid having Waters potentially block another punt. It was one of the many bitter endings that Tom Landy-era teams suffered in the playoffs.
6. 1983: Rams 24 – Cowboys 17
This game was part of the worst late-season collapse in Cowboys history. A team coming off three consecutive NFC Championship appearances had started 12-2. But a division showdown against the Redskins had seen Washington thoroughly dominate the Cowboys 31-10. A demoralizing 42-17 loss the following week to San Francisco left the 12-4 Cowboys to host a wild card game against the 9-7 Rams at Texas Stadium.
The Rams took the opening kickoff and marched for an easy touchdown. The Cowboys would briefly rally, taking a 10-7 lead into halftime. The team was then driving for a potential score when a Danny White interception near the L.A. goal line was returned 70+ yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown midway through the third quarter.
Dallas then completely melted. White was intercepted twice more in the second half. The Cowboys defense surrendered three touchdown passes. The rushing game was held to 63 total yards. Texas Stadium was mostly empty when White connected with Doug Cosbie for a meaningless touchdown with under a minute remaining to make the final score 24–17.
A 12-2 team with Super Bowl aspirations had been reduced to an also-ran in a swift, stunning three-week collapse that hadn’t been seen in Dallas before or after.
5. 1985: Rams 20 – Cowboys 0
The 1985 Dallas Cowboys were Tom Landry’s last great coaching performance. The team frankly had no business in the playoffs, but a 6-2 division record enabled the 10-6 team to reach the playoffs. They would travel to Los Angeles for a divisional round game.
The game never really seemed in doubt. Though the score was only 3 –0 at halftime it seemed inevitable Eric Dickerson would run over the Cowboys defense. He finished with an NFL post-season record 248 yards. The Cowboys committed six turnovers. The key sequence of the game came as the second half started:
· A ridiculous Cowboys squib kickoff gave the Rams the ball at the 45-yard line.
· Eric Dickerson immediately ran 55-yards for a touchdown and a 10–0 lead.
· The following kick was fumbled by the Cowboys and recovered by the Rams.
· The Cowboys held but the Rams converted the field goal for an insurmountable 13–0 lead.
Another fumbled punt by the Cowboys set up a 40-yard Eric Dickerson touchdown for a 20–0 lead that effectively ended the game.
Thus, Dallas was thoroughly outclassed in a playoff game where opposing quarterback Dieter Brock threw for 50 yards and compiled a 21 passer rating. It was an ugly game and an ugly conclusion to another Cowboy’s season. Truthfully, the Cowboys had grossly exceeded their talent level in winning 10 games and an NFC Eastern championship.
4. 1980: Cowboys 34 – Rams 13
In week 15 the 11-3 Cowboys traveled to Los Angeles for a Monday night game against the Rams. A win would set up a second consecutive week 16 tilt against a division foe (the Eagles) for the NFC East division crown and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cowboys were non-competitive. They were down 28-0 at halftime and 38-0 after three quarters. Danny White threw three interceptions. The Dallas defense surrendered 517 yards.
The loss rendered the week 16 game against the Eagles meaningless. The Cowboys won that game to give them a home field wild card game against…. the very same Rams. The results were reversed in Dallas, with the Cowboys dominating after falling behind 13-6 early.
Tony Dorsett ran for 160 yards and the three other running backs (Robert Newhouse, Ron Springs and Tim Newsome) added another 160 for a devastating 330+ yards on the ground. Danny White had a quintessential Danny White game (three touchdowns/three interceptions) and it was the Cowboys who put up over 500 yards in a 34-13 victory. The win took Dallas to a division round game against the talented Atlanta Falcons.
Dallas would beat the Falcons (30-27) in miraculous fashion, overcoming a 27-17 deficit in the final four minutes to advance to the NFC Championship. The Eagles, however, dominated Dallas in a 20-7 loss, the first of three consecutive championship games losses in the early 80s.
3. 1973: Cowboys 27 – Rams 16
The previous three seasons Dallas had advanced to Super Bowl V (1970), won Super Bowl VI (1971) and advanced to the NFC Championship game in 1972. Thus, when the team hosted a division round game against the Rams in 1973 most fans expected a win.
The Cowboys clung to a single point lead midway through the fourth quarter and faced a long third down from their own 17-yard line. Staubach then hit rookie Drew Pearson on a deep crossing pattern between two defenders who collided, allowing Pearson to race all the way for an 83-yard touchdown. It was the first time Pearson really carved his name into the Cowboys’ annals.
Dallas would go on to win 27-16 but then faltered the next week at home, losing 27-10 to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game.
2. 1978: Dallas 28 – Rams 0
A Dallas team defending their Super Bowl XII trophy traveled to Los Angeles to face another quality Rams team.
The first half was largely a defensive struggle, with neither team able to move the ball against stiff defenses. Each team failed to take advantage of their limited opportunities. The Rams missed two field goals while the Cowboys fumbled into the end zone (after a Charlie Waters fumble recovery) on their lone scoring opportunity.
Throughout the second half the Cowboys simply made the big plays when they counted. A Charlie Waters interception return early in the half set the Cowboys up at the Rams 9-yard-line. Dorsett then scored from four yards out to put the Cowboys up 7-0. The Rams appeared well set up to even the score when a punt return gave them the ball at the Cowboys 23-yard line. Three plays netted nine yards. The Rams opted to go for it on 4th-and-1. The Cowboys stuffed the Rams to end the threat.
The score, however, was still 7-0 when Charlie Waters intercepted Pat Haden a second time, this time returning the ball to the Rams 20. This was the third time a Waters turnover had given the Cowboys the ball in Rams territory. Haden also suffered a broken hand on the play (via Randy White) and would not return to the game. Scott Laidlaw hauled in a short pass for the touchdown and the Cowboys took control with a 14-0 lead.
The Rams briefly rallied when Willie Miller turned Cliff Harris around in embarrassing fashion, leading to a 65-yard catch-and-run that set the Rams up inside the Cowboys 15. Lawrence McCutcheon, however, fumbled on the following play and the game was effectively over at that point. A long Tony Dorsett run led to a touchdown pass to Billy Joe Dupree for a 21-0 lead. The scoring was closed out on a highlight-reel pick-six by Thomas Henderson.
The 28-0 final score looks like a thrashing in retrospect but it wasn’t. This wasn’t Dallas dominating in all phases of the game. The Rams out-gained the Cowboys. The Cowboys committed three turnovers and 10 penalties. But they also forced seven turnovers by the Rams and made all the second half plays; whenever the Rams did threaten and manage to get some momentum the defense immediately shut it down.
1. 1975: Dallas 37 – Rams 7
Everyone is familiar with the Hail Mary game, when Roger Staubach teamed up with Drew Pearson for a 50-yard touchdown pass to beat the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the 1975 playoffs.
Forgotten by many, however, is the Cowboys went to Los Angeles the next week and utterly destroyed perhaps the best Rams team up until the Greatest Show on Turf teams of the late 90’s.
While Dallas fans had been surprised by the miraculous Hail Mary, the 1975 NFC Championship was nothing less than a three-hour party. Needless to say the Cowboys dominated in every fashion. The Rams had surrendered a league-low 135 points, less than 10 points per game. It meant nothing.
The Cowboys were up 21-0 before the end of the half. The Dallas defense completely dominated; the Rams offense mustered only 118 yards, was sacked five times and turned the ball over three times. The Dallas offense accumulated over 440 yards, was never sacked and had only a single turnover. Preston Pearson, the only player on the team not to have played his entire career with the Cowboys, scored three touchdowns.
This was the coming out party for the Cowboys famous “Dirty Dozen” draft of 1975 as the youthful exuberance on display throughout the game was a dramatic departure of the buttoned up, stoic, business-like demeanor of previous Cowboys teams.
The dominating victory propelled the Cowboys into Super X, where they would come up just short against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So, how will Saturday night’s tilt be remembered in Cowboys lore? Will it be another joyous chapter to be recalled by future generations of Cowboys’ fans? Or will it be another bitter divisional defeat that yet again denies the Cowboys from again finally reaching the NFC Championship?