Apparently, you had to be a Cowboy to fully grasp what the Cowboys accomplished today. Cliff Harris, not inclined to overstate matters, called it, "one of the big wins in our history" -- and once he gained verbal momentum there was no stopping him.

"Our prestige was at stake," he began. "The Cowboy tradition was at stake. They (the Eagles) had beaten us in Dallas -- and they had the playoffs clinched. We had so many new people this year, a lot of dissension, a lot of distractions."

For "America's Team" not to make the playoffs in America's Game would be an embarrassment beyond belief. Before today, that was a possibility. In truth, it was possible for one of the great athletic machines of the '70s to be beaten out of the NFL playoffs by three relative tinker toys, the Eagles, Redskins and Bears.

Hollywood Henderson had been fired. Hot Dog Pearson missed the game with a self-inflicted knee injury -- a spike wound. Tony Dorsett missed most of the game with a shoulder injury. Randy Hughes missed the final drama with even more serious shoulder troubles.

Dallas still won, by a touchdown, in part because tackleless and sackless Harvey Martin finally earned his game check and the offense finally decided fierce was better than finesse.

"You're my hero," Harris said to (The Beautiful) Harvey.

Why? Because after a near defensive shutout, he almost sindlehandedly destroyed the Eagles on the final three plays and lifted Dallas into the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years.

Harris continued his earlier theme, saying: "This was even more gratifying because we never made the tremendously big play. I had a chance to do it" -- but he dropped a near-certain touchdown interception -- "and so did the offense in the first half before Tony fumbled.

"At no point did we dominate, flatten 'em. We've done that to teams in the past, but not this year. Which made this really good. They kept coming at us, kept the pressure on. And we still won the game. We still won the game."

And the luck, the crazy bounces and such that also had gone against the Cowboys much of the season, rushed their way today. A fumble during the winning touchdown drive found its way into the eager arms of offensive tackle Pat Donovan.

Also, the abacus, or whatever they use to keep count of the players on the field, broke again. They had 12 men on for another important play -- first down for the Eagles on the Dallas 17 with 61 seconds left.

This time, nobody but the Eagles and a few reporters able to count past 11 noticed.

Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski did, but by the time he brought it to the attention of the officials, the presumed extra body, Dennis Thurman, had gone tippy-toe to the sideline and assumed a crossed-arm pose beside Tom Landry.

And god-fearin' Tom was not about to 'fess up

Thurman was one of the reasons the final Dallas defensive stand was so delicious. Because the starter, Charlie Waters, already was out for the season with an injury, Hughes had been manning strong safety.

With Hughes injured, the regular left cornerback, Bennie Barnes, became the strong safety and the seldom-seen thurman filled in at the left corner. All this after Henderson had been fired and replaced by Mike Hegman, burned earlier in the game for a touchdown by the Eagles. And too Tall Jones retired.

"We've had new people and we've had distractions." said free safety Harris. "But not all of 'em in one year, like this one. And to pull this off, to make the playoffs." There was a deeply satisfying smile as he tore a bandage off his bloody right elbow.

Nearby, Thurman was yelping to a Philadelphia reporter: "Tell 'em (the Eagles) they are at a screeching halt at the moment. And they still got to go to Texas again (for a season-ending game against the Oilers).

"Tell 'em we're gonna take the division."

That would require a victory over the redskins next week in Dallas. The Hughes injury is more serious than the Dorsett injury and Dorsett and some Cowboys were insisting he would play against Washington.

There was one honest realist.

"If it means winning the division or making sure Tony is healthy," said center John Fitzgerald, "there is absolutely no question in my mind about the decision. He shouldn't play. That is one man I want on the field when it becomes marble-throwin' time."