In an emotional atmosphere fanned by a frenzied six-day buildup, the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys meet today with more at stake than the National Football Conference championship and a berth in the Super Bowl Jan. 30.
"This is our Super Bowl," said Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley, removing his "I Hate Dallas" hat. "This is our biggest rival, this is our home city, this is our stadium. This is the game we've all waited a long time to play. How can it get bigger than this?"
The Cowboys are driven by the fear of losing a third straight NFC title game, especially in the home of their most heated rival. The Redskins are driven by a quest for respect, a quest cut short 48 days ago when the Cowboys gave the Redskins their only loss, 24-10, in RFK Stadium.
The teams return to RFK again today for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff (WDVM-TV-9) before what should be an outrageously noisy sellout crowd of 55,045. Not since 1972, when the Redskins overwhelmed the Cowboys, 26-3, here to advance to their only Super Bowl have their fans been this excited. Some have been willing to pay as much as $350 for a ticket.
But lest either rooters or players forget its importance, someone hung a hand-painted sign this week across the street from Redskin Park: "Respect Comes On Saturday."
"Everyone says we haven't beaten anyone, that we've been lucky," guard Russ Grimm said. "They point to the fact we lost to Dallas the last time. That's why we wanted the Cowboys again this season. If we beat Dallas, what are they going to say? It'll prove what we already know, that we are a good team."
The Redskins are aware that the oddsmakers still question their ability, even after winning six in a row, 10 of their last 11 games, 13 of their last 14 and 18 of their last 22. Why else would Dallas be a 2 1/2-point favorite in a stadium Washington Coach Joe Gibbs says probably is worth five points to his team?
"Anytime you get people excited, like the people in Washington are excited, it makes a game special," Dallas Coach Tom Landry said.
The Cowboys and Redskins have so many questions to answer. If it snows or rains, as the National Weather Bureau predicted yesterday, will the Redskins have an advantage because of fullback John Riggins? Will the Cowboys be slowed appreciably by what could be a soft, spongy field? Will the Redskins be hindered by their lack of playoff experience? Will the Redskins, finally, be hurt by the loss of injured Art Monk?
The contrast in styles alone makes the matchup intriguing. The Redskins have thrived on mistake-free (one turnover the last three weeks), ball-control football built around Riggins' running and quarterback Joe Theismann's 73 percent passing the last month. The Cowboys have been consistently inconsistent, needing big plays from White, halfback Tony Dorsett and receivers Drew Pearson, Tony Hill and Butch Johnson.
Landry characterizes this as his players' first big game of the season, so he isn't sure how they will respond. The last time these teams met? "Just a matter-of-fact game," he said.
The Cowboys seem predestined to play in these championship games every year. This is their 10th title appearance in 13 seasons. Lately, they also seem predestined to beat the Redskins, having won six straight.
They've dominated the Redskins mostly by shutting off Washington's running game and by giving up no more than 10 points in any contest since 1979. In the first meeting this year, Riggins, who has the word "Diesel" stitched into his practice stocking cap, was limited to 26 yards. He had that many in the first quarter last week against Minnesota en route to a career best 185 yards.
"If we are going to win, we have to be able to run, it's that simple," said Joe Bugel, who created the Hogs, the Redskins' offensive line. The Hogs, who allowed Theismann to be sacked seven times by a variety of Dallas blitzes in the December game, remain embarrassed by that performance.
"You beat Dallas by not getting caught up in a lot of third-and-long situations," said Theismann, who was intercepted three times that game. "You must have a balanced attack, so we can control the game and they can't. Against Dallas, you never let them be in control."
"We can't beat ourselves," said Gibbs, in his first title game as a head coach. "We have to make Dallas beat us. We have to be aggressive on defense and force turnovers. And we can't give up the big play."
The Cowboys are concerned about Riggins and the Hogs.
"Riggins is on a roll," middle linebacker Bob Bruenig said. "There is nothing very complicated about him. He is a big horse and his line is working for him."
"You have to gap Riggins, give him no room," defensive end Ed Jones said. "Once he gets his steam rolling, he is very fast . . . I look at the films and there are a lot of holes--holes that I could run through."
The Redskins are concerned about Dorsett, who gained only 57 yards against them in December. But linebacker Rich Milot says they must "put more pressure on White than we did last time. He killed us with his third-down possession passes. They run a lot of timing routes and we have to disrupt those."
Everyone, including Landry, agrees that the Redskins have improved since that December game. Washington has outscored its opponents, 107-24, the last four weeks and 52-14 in playoff games. Only one team the last month has gained more than 100 yards rushing on the defense, during which the offense has averaged 176 yards on the ground.
"We couldn't be more happy about how we are playing coming into this game," safety Mark Murphy said. "We've matured as the season has progressed . . . If it's cold, Dallas might not like it, but the fans will make us nice and warm."
The Redskins made two roster changes yesterday, activating defensive tackle Perry Brooks and linebacker Pete Cronan and placing on injured reserve linebacker Stuart Anderson and defensive tackle Pat Ogrin . . . Kick returner Mike Nelms has recovered from a bruised thigh and tight end Don Warren, who has a bruised ankle, can play.