The suspense doubled the Philadelphia Eagles' pleasure today after they belittled the New York Giants, 20-3, then watched on locker-room television as the Minnesota Vikings fell behind the Oakland Raiders, 21-0, in the first quarter.
At about the same time, the Los Angeles Rams had taken a 7-0 lead over the Green Bay Packers. With their victory, the Eagles needed a loss by either of the Central Division teams to gain a wild-card playoff berth against Atlanta next Sunday.
And the Philadelphians started celebrating early, before the final results were in (Oakland 27, Minnesota 20 and Los Angeles 31, Green Bay 14), from the band to Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski to Coach Dick Vermeil.
"It's like a dream come true," said Vermeil, "just to be able to say we are winners, let alone a playoff team."
It was the Eagles' first winning season (9-7) since 1966 and only their second since 1961.
The catalyst of the Eagles' victory over the Giants, running back Wilbert Montgomery, was the only calm person in the locker room, even after Eagles' Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren paid him a dazzling compliment: "There are only two runners in your class, you and Walter Payton."
But the other members of the long suffering Eagles were on high.
"I'm going to start drinking my beer (at a noted seafood restaurant engaged by the Eagles)," quarterback Jaworski said moments after the early returns were in from Oakland.
Even before the game here in Veterans Stadium was over, the band struck up a meaningful melody for Philadelphia-"O Dem Golden Slippers," a traditional string band favorite played in the Mummers' Parade on New Year's Day in anticipation of prosperity.
"I was very confident," Vermeil said. "We're a better team than the Giants. We've beaten them six straight times," since he's been coach.
He tried to spare the feelings of his opposing coach, John McVay, who might have spent his last day on the job, by saying it would be a mistake for the Giants to fire McVay.
Montgomery scored two touchdowns, gained 130 yards in 25 carries, had the game's longest run (47 yards) and broke the Van Buren club single-season rushing record of 1,146 yards, set in 1949, by 74 yards. It was Montgomery's sixth 100-yard-plus game this season.
Standing about 15 feet away as interviewers clustered around Montgomery, Van Buren then posed with him for a picture and said to the second-year back from Abilene Christian:
"You can gain 1,700 yards in a 16 game season."
When Montgomery expressed doubt, Van Buren replied, "You can do it. If Dallas had you, it would be better off. There are only two in your class, Walter Payton and you."
Then Van Buren said to reporters, "He is better than Tony Dorsett and Delvin Williams, and he is going to get better, if he doesn't get hurt. He did not have that good a season for him, but he's got to stay healthy."
Montgomery ran 47 yards on the Eagles' third play from scrimmage, then flitted the final two yards for the touchdown. Later in the first quarter, with a 37-mile-an-hour north-west wind at his back blowing debris all over the stadium, Jaworski passed 43 yards to wide receiver Harold Carmichael and on the next play Montgomery dashed seven yards for his second touchdown. Mike Michel missed the conversion attempt.
In the same quarter, Joe Danelo kicked a 24-yard field goal for the Giants, but that was the extent of their scoring. Inside linebacker Frank LeMaster intercepted a pass by quarterback Joe Pisarcik on third and 27 in the final quarter and ran nine yards for a touchdown that touched off the celebration the Eagles hoped would not be premature.