Dexter Manley and his Redskins' teammates got what they wanted: another shot at the Dallas Cowboys.
By beating Green Bay yesterday, the Cowboys set up a match with the Redskins Saturday in RFK Stadium. At stake will be the National Football Conference title, a trip to the Super Bowl and everything the Redskins have achieved in this surprising, almost mystical season.
"I respect them, but I just don't like them," said Manley, Redskins' defensive end who was a Cowboys' fan while growing up in Houston. "Even if they beat us, they are going to pay the price in RFK. The only reason I don't like them is that I'm here, in Washington. How can I live here, in this town, and say I like the Dallas Cowboys?
"Besides, we need to win this game to get the respect we deserve. People should be convinced by now, but if we get to the Super Bowl, they'll have to think we are good."
So the Redskins, with all their gaudy numbers this season (six straight victories, 13 of their last 14 and 18 of 22) will be matched against the Cowboys and all their playoff tradition--and their recent domination of this emotional rivalry.
Dallas has won six straight over Washington, including a 24-10 victory Dec. 5 in RFK. That defeat, the only one along with 10 victories this season, has eaten away at the Redskins the last six weeks.
"Any time you play somebody and haven't beaten them, it drives you," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who has not beaten Dallas in three tries. "If you are competitive, you want to get over that hurdle.
"I'm sure everybody on the team feels the same way. They are the team that beat us and you'd like to have that back. This is a chance to play them again."
In that game, Dallas sacked Joe Theismann seven times with a variety of blitzes and intercepted three passes. But the Redskins trailed just 17-10 in the fourth period before Danny White killed their momentum with a run off a fake punt.
"I just remember that we missed some big plays," Gibbs said. "We were emotional, but we weren't smooth. And we have to do a better job against their blitzing."
Dallas will find things different this time. The Redskins are growing in confidence and maturing the further they advance in the playoffs.
"We've been playing very well, but you just have to take it week to week," Gibbs said. "You never know when it might stop. We just have to continue to be well prepared and emotional. I know we feel good about ourselves. There is a confidence factor that carries over from week to week."
Theismann: "I think fans across the country and the national media finally are starting to sit up and notice that the Redskins are a pretty special football team."
Early in the year, the Redskins scratched and scrambled to pull out fourth-quarter victories. They relied mostly on Mark Moseley's field goals to gain first place in the NFC standings. In five of their first six games, Moseley's kicks supplied the margin of victory, an accomplishment that earned him the league's most valuable player award from the Associated Press.
But the Redskins' success no longer can be attributed to fluky plays and lucky bounces. They haven't had to depend on Moseley since he beat the Giants five weeks ago with a final-moment kick that broke the NFL record for consecutive field goals.
In the ensuing four games, Washington has overwhelmed opponents, 107-24. The Redskins have scored at least 21 points each week and yielded no more than 10 in any game. In two playoff games, the point margin is 52-14.
Everything is falling into place at the right time. The Redskins have few nationally known players, but they all are at the top of their games, most notably quarterback Theismann, fullback John Riggins and defensive tackle Dave Butz. The special teams have been playing with the enthusiasm and stinginess that George Allen would admire. And Richie Petitbon has done a good job developing an aggressive defense that now is among the league's best.
Even without injured receiver Art Monk and hobbled halfback Joe Washington, the Redskins' offense has fulfilled Gibbs' game plans almost to perfection, especially in the first half against Minnesota Saturday.
Gibbs wants no turnovers; the Redskins have made only one in three weeks. Gibbs wants to control the ball; Riggins has gained 304 rushing yards the last two weeks and the Redskins have averaged 176 yards on the ground the last four. Gibbs wants to pass with accuracy, but still go for the big scoring plays whenever possible; Theismann has completed 67 percent of his passes the last four weeks and 73 percent in the playoffs. He has thrown 10 touchdown passes the last month, but one interception (of 89 passes).
The result is offensive balance that coaches dream of, but don't expect. What does Dallas do? Bunch up on Riggins? Then Theismann's throwing could be decisive. Drop off to stop Theismann? Then Riggins will carry play after play, as he did against Minnesota. The Redskins aren't turning over the ball very often, either. Riggins, for example, has carried 239 times this year and lost one fumble.
The defense isn't letting opponents rush or score. Three of the last four weeks, Washington has yielded fewer than 96 yards rushing. Dallas is the last team to score more than two touchdowns against the Redskins. Washington is forcing mistakes and getting sacks (11 and 16 the last four weeks), in part because of consistent blitzing pressure and in part because of aggressive tackling by a talented, intimidating secondary.
Because the offense has the ball for so long, the defense isn't on the field for extended periods, a key factor. And the special teams, No. 1 in the league in kickoff differential and No. 3 in punt differential, aren't allowing long returns (no punt returns over eight yards the last nine weeks). The result: in the last four weeks, opponents have had to start every possession inside their 50. Just twice since the Dallas game have teams begun inside Redskins' territory, at the 39 and 34 after a fourth-down failure and an interception.
"When players like Joe and John are doing this well, it makes us very consistent," Gibbs said. "Take Theismann. When he gets in a streak like he's in, he doesn't give up the ball and he keeps making big passes. And that makes us tough.
"Maybe other teams can overcome turnovers and mistakes, but we can't. That's something the players learned a long time ago and it's a major reason we've gotten this far. Turnovers kill you."
Just ask Green Bay and San Diego.
The remaining 2,000 to 3,000 tickets for Saturday's playoff game sold out at 1 p.m. yesterday, five hours after they went on sale.
The waiting line began forming after Washington's victory over Minnesota Saturday afternoon. The tickets went on sale an hour earlier than announced to accommodate fans, said team spokesman Joe Blair.
An estimated 300 people were turned away after tickets had been sold out, Blair said.