Wilbert Montgomery felt a twinge in his left knee almost every time he carried the football today, but he was feeling no pain in public after he helped the Philadelphia Eagles dash past the Dallas Cowboys, 20-7, for the National Football Conference championship on a bitterly cold afternoon.
The Eagles, who last won an NFL title in 1960, will make their first appearance in the Super Bowl Jan. 25. And they will go to New Orleans mostly because of Montgomery, a man who had every right to proclaim today that: "I belong right up there with any of the great backs in the league."
Playing on a knee that buckled in paractice last Wednesday, Montgomery gained 194 yards on 26 carries, two yards short of the NFC championship record set by another Eagle back, steve Van Buren, in 1949.
Montgomery also scored the Eagles' first touchdown with a 42-yard sprint on Philadelphia's second play from scrimmage, had another run of 55 yards and allowed the Eagles to play the kind of ball-control offense they needed to doom Dallas.
And, as usual, the Eagles received a superb effort from their defense, ranked No. 1 in the conference this season. Today they demonstrated why no other team in the league had yielded fewer points.
Eagles defenders forced critical Cowboy fumbles in the third quarter -- one by quarterback Danny White on blind-side sack, the other by Tony Dorsett on an aborted sweep -- that led to Tony Franklin's 26-yard field goal and Leroy Harris' nine-yard touchdown run in the period.
And the Cowboys, who rallied dramatically to defeat Atlanta in the final minutes last week, were fresh out of miracle finishes on this 16-degree day (minus 17 with the wind-chill factor).
"The key to the whole game was the third quarter when we turned the ball over," said Cowboy Coach Tom Landry, also admitting he felt the Cowboys were fortunate to get to the NFC game in the first place. "You can't give a good team like Philadelphia opportunities and momentum and expect to win. That's what happened in the third quarter."
What happened all day was that the Eagle defense harassed White into throwing too quickly, forcing him into only 12 completions in 31 attempts for 127 yards.
They were equally nasty toward the Cowboys' other big play heros, holding Dorsett to 41 yards in 13 carries and limiting wide receiver Drew Pearson to two catches for 15 yards.
In all , the Eagles forced five fumlbes, recovered three of them, and intercepted a pass, limiting the Cowboys' high-powered offense to 202 total yards.
And always, there was Montgomery heading toward the Cowboy goal line, only five days after he had to leave a practice session in Tampa, Fla., when that knee buckled as he ran a pass pattern.
Montgomery had a disappointing season, missing four games and parts of three others with a series of nagging injuries. But he said: "Today helped make up for a lot of the pain. I spent about 13 weeks in the training room. Give those guys some credit for getting me on the field.
"I was very concerned about not playing (in today's game) when I first got hurt Wednesday. But I was able to practice and when we worked out on the field here Saturday I knew I could play. The knee hurt every time I pounded down on the turf, but it didn't give way. It gave me the confidence to play today."
That confidence never was more apparent than on the Eagles' second play of the day, when Montgomery shot through a hole on the right side and ran 42 yards untouched into the end zone.
"We were just trying to spread the Cowboys out a little to give Wilbert and Leroy some room to run," said Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski. "We were in a slot split. He (Wilbert) found a crack and was in the end zone."
The Eagles dominated almost from start to finish today, yet squandered outstanding field position all afternoon to keep the Cowboys alive until the turnovers in the third quarter.
Franklin had one field goal blocked and never got a chance to kick another after a high snap from center slipped between Jaworski's hands, both plays in the first half.
Jaworski also has an apparent 25-yard scoring pass to Harold Carmichael nullified late in the second period because guard Woody Peoples stuck his hands in the face of Cowboy lineman John Dutton. The personal foul and a 15-yard penalty effectively killed the drive.
"I actually felt we should have beaten them worse than we did," said Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil. "We had opportunities, but we just couldn't get it done."
"I don't mean this as a derogatory evaluation of the Cowboys, but we really felt they didn't have a lot of respect for us in this kind of a game. And (they) felt maybe they were going to whip our butts because we are the Eagles and they are the Cowboys. Our motto is, 'The only way you can feel inferior is if you allow it yourself."
Today the Eagles had every reason to feel superior, particularly in the second half. The Cowboys manage to tie at 7-7 on Dorsett's three-yard touchdown run with 5:50 left in the first half. But Dallas never got closer than the Eagles 39 after that.
The Eagles finally began capitalizing after Carl Hairston bopped White from the blind side and Dennis Harrison recovered the fumbled football at the Cowboy 11 midway through the third period. Three plays later, Franklin put his cold bare tootsies into a successful 26-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
The Cowboys gave the ball back almost immediately on the next series. On first and 10 from the Eagle 40, Dorsett swept to his right and was stripped of the football by cornerback Roynell Young. Linebacker Jerry Robinson picked it up and ran 22 yards to the Dallas 38.
Six plays later, at the nine, Jaworski had the Cowboys guessing pass, then handed off on a quick draw to Harris, his fullback. Harris bounced off Harvey Martin, lowered his head and ran in for the touchdown.
"it was your basic nice big hole," Harris said. "The center (Guy Moriss) threw a big block on their middle linebacker. I didn't feel anybody hit me. Nothing. All I could see was the goal line."
Franklin's conversion kick gave the Eagles a 17-7 lead with 1:47 left in the third period. And when the Eagles drove from their 35 to the Cowboy three, knocking 6:48 off the clock, Franklin added the clinching points with a 20-yard field goal with 2:10 to play.
Philadelphia's police had broken out their own personal victory cigar -- cops on horseback on the field and more officers holding dogs in the end zone -- with 3:52 remaining. Franklin's points just added the finishing touch.
"We just beat 'em, no flukes, no excusses, no nothing," said Eagles' middle guard Charlie Johnson. "We dominated them and we intimidated them. That's right, intimidated them."
And when Roger Staubach, the former Cowboy quarterback turned television announcer came strolling into the giddy Eagle locker room, linebacker Bill Bergey playfully tried to intimidate him, too.
"Hey, Roger," he bellowed. "We would have whipped the Cowboys, even if you'd been playing."