Moments before John Riggins finished an overpowering 37-carry, 185-yard performance, moments before the Redskins advanced to the National Football Conference championship game with a 21-7 victory over Minnesota, the chant began throughout RFK Stadium yesterday.
"We want Dallas, we want Dallas," the 54,593 fans shouted. "We want Dallas."
By beating the Vikings, the Redskins, who last appeared in a Super Bowl 10 years ago, did their part to bring about a much-desired rematch with the Cowboys in the NFC title game next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in RFK. Now Washington can only wait to see how Dallas fares today against Green Bay in the other NFC semifinal.
"We have to play whoever shows up next week, but hopefully we'll get a shot at Dallas and what happens, happens," said quarterback Joe Theismann, who threw two touchdown passes and was 17 of 23 for 213 yards. "The important thing is, we're in the game. We're one win from the Super Bowl. And we're playing at home."
The Redskins last were in the NFC championship game in 1972, when they beat the Cowboys to advance to their only Super Bowl, which they lost, 14-7, to the Miami Dolphins. But the Cowboys are the only team to defeat Washington (24-10 in RFK) in what otherwise has been a magical season for the Redskins.
Whichever team plays Washington next week will have to find a way to minimize Riggins, the relentless 33-year-old fullback who yesterday ran for the most yards in his 11-year career. The 37 carries were also a personal high.
Riggins had great days before, but nothing comparable to the way he overwhelmed the Vikings, as the Redskins gained 415 total yards on a defense that had been improving the last few weeks. Riggins' performance came a week after he rushed for 119 yards in the opening NFC playoff game against Detroit.
"They said he was washed up three years ago," said linebacker Rich Milot. "If he's washed up, I'd like to be so bad for the rest of my career. We just stand there and cheer for him. All the while, we are resting, and that has to help us play better."
But even with Riggins' splendid effort, the game was closer than the final score indicates. After falling behind, 21-7, at the half, Minnesota threatened constantly in the last two quarters, but a dropped pass in the end zone by Sammy White and two unsuccessful fourth-down attempts deep in Washington territory thwarted the Vikings' comeback hopes.
"I couldn't relax until late in the game," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We missed two (Mark Moseley) field goals and that put us in a tough spot . . . Thank God we have John Riggins. He's stupendous. It's really remarkable when you think about it. Here's a guy 33 years old, but when he says he is going to do something, he is going to do it. And he says he's going to carry the ball for us."
Riggins' career best had been 168 yards against New England in 1972, when he was a second-year player with the New York Jets. Earlier this season, he had carried 34 times against Tampa Bay, surpassing his 32 carries against the Jets. His marks yesterday were all Redskin playoff records, as were the team's 204 rushing yards (best of the season) and 23 first downs.
The Redskins, 10-1, including two playoff victories, have a six-game winning streak; they have won 13 of 14 over two seasons and 18 of 22. Their defense has allowed two touchdowns in the last 14 quarters. Their offense has scored 107 points and averaged 370 yards in the last four games, committing just three turnovers.
"We are playing about as well as we can play as a team," defensive end Dexter Manley said. "Whoever comes in here next week will not have an easy time."
For a while yesterday, it seemed the Redskins would have an easy time, just as they had a relatively easy time routing the Lions, 31-7.
On its first possession, Washington drove 66 yards, with Theismann throwing a three-yard scoring pass to tight end Don Warren in the back of the end zone. Riggins, running mostly behind the blocking of center Jeff Bostic, left guard Russ Grimm and left tackle Joe Jacoby, gained 34 yards on seven carries.
On their second possession, the Redskins moved 71 yards, with Riggins covering the final two on a tackle-breaking burst. That play came on fourth and inches from the two, minutes after Theismann had taken a pitch from Riggins and completed a 46-yard flea flicker pass to receiver Alvin Garrett at the Viking 11.
At this point, one minute before the end of the first quarter, Minnesota had five total yards and no first downs. Washington had controlled the ball 12 minutes to the Vikings' two.
But quarterback Tommy Kramer brought his team within a touchdown on an 18-yard trap run by halfback Ted Brown. The Redskins answered with yet another score, this one an 18-yard pass from Theismann to Garrett, who caught three touchdown passes last week.
Garrett ran a post pattern, a play the Redskins had worked on diligently all week, hoping to draw single coverage. They did, but Garrett said he thought cornerback Willie Teal had the play well diagnosed.
"He was playing me inside and that's where I wanted to make my move," Garrett said. "But I made it, anyway, and it worked."
Theismann hit Garrett in full stride in the middle of the end zone for a 21-7 lead. Garrett finished with three receptions for 75 yards. Theismann had another sharp performance, although he threw his first interception in 3 1/2 games that broke a streak of 87 attempts without being intercepted.
"It's the kind of game that we didn't want to get into," said Minnesota Coach Bud Grant. "Exactly what happened is what we didn't want to happen. We get 14 points behind and let them run the ball."
Riggins ran the ball 20 times, for 109 yards, after the Redskins led by 14. The Redskins used just a few running plays, but they worked time and again. Remarkably, only four of his gains were for more than nine yards.
"We wanted to run the ball, just like we always do," Gibbs said. "But we never expected to run this well. We just tried different runs, inside and outside, until we saw what worked. We were going up the middle, so we stayed with it."
There would be no more scoring, although both teams had ample opportunities. Minnesota's Rick Danmeier missed a 38-yard field goal early in the second quarter and Moseley missed two attempts, a 47-yarder late in the same period and a 39-yarder in the third period.
The second attempt came a play after a penalty against Milot for an illegal block nullified a 29-yarder by Moseley. Moseley has made one of his last five attempts after setting the NFL record for consecutive field goals with 23.
Minnesota was on the Redskins' 39, 28 and 15 in the second half and did not score each time.
Twice, Grant disdained field goal tries on fourth-down plays. "We still had to have three possessions to win if you don't make it (field goal)," he said. "We were in good field position . . . You win ball games with touchdowns, not first downs or field goals."
Gibbs: "I would have done the same thing. The way we were controlling the ball, you had to get touchdowns."
On third and eight from the Washington 39 early in the third period, Kramer's pass to Sam McCullum was incomplete. McCullum was called for pass interference, which the Redskins declined.
On third and six from the Washington 28 minutes later, White had cornerback Vernon Dean beaten by three steps, but dropped a well-thrown pass in the end zone.
Dean said he missed a defensive audible and thought he would receive some coverage help. He didn't, but when White dropped the ball, "I just clapped and said, 'Thanks,' to myself."
"That was a key play," safety Mark Murphy said. "They score there and it's 21-14. He just plain dropped it."
Early in the fourth period, Kramer faced fourth and seven from the Redskin 15. He hadn't been sacked all day, but this time veteran end Tony McGee, who plays for Mat Mendenhall on passing downs, pushed aside tackle Tim Irwin and caught Kramer from behind.
That was the Vikings' last chance. Riggins carried 11 more times, wearing out both Minnesota and the clock. When he finally was taken out with a minute left, the fans gave him an emotional standing ovation. He answered by slowly bowing twice and waving.
"I told the team at halftime that I didn't think we had enough points to win," Gibbs said. "I was glad I was wrong. This is a very big day for the Redskins, a very big day. We couldn't be happier."
The Redskins will put between 2,000 and 3,000 tickets on sale at 9 a.m. today for Saturday's NFC championship game at RFK Stadium. Tickets will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.