It couldn't get much sweeter than this for the Washington Redskins. In a madhouse called RFK Stadium, they got all the revenge and respect they wanted yesterday by beating the Dallas Cowboys, 31-17, to earn their second trip to the Super Bowl.
"This was the way it was supposed to be," Coach Joe Gibbs said in an emotion-filled dressing room after taking a congratulatory telephone call from President Reagan. "I haven't even thought about the Super Bowl. This is our Super Bowl, this was everything rolled into one. The Redskins versus Dallas, the team we wanted to beat the most. How can you top that?"
The Redskins won the NFC title game and a berth in Super Bowl XVII next Sunday in Pasadena, Calif., because the Hogs, their young offensive line, dominated the Cowboys' front four, allowing fullback John Riggins to grind out 140 time-consuming, spirit-breaking yards.
They won because defensive tackle Darryl Grant was able to run 10 yards to the Dallas end zone with a fourth-quarter pass that was tipped by defensive end Dexter Manley, the Redskin who most dislikes the Cowboys.
They won because Mike Nelms nearly returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the third period after almost handing Dallas a score on a fumble.
They won because Dallas, which lost starting quarterback Danny White (concussion) late in the second quarter, committed three turnovers that error-free Washington turned into 17 points.
They won because of a raucous sellout crowd of 55,045 that refused to stop rocking the stadium even when the Cowboys had closed to 21-17 late in the third period.
They won because Dallas had beaten them six straight times, an accomplishment that drove them all week. And they won because they thought no one respected them even though they had the best record in the NFL.
"People didn't think we were any good; Dallas didn't think we were any good," guard Mark May said. "Dallas said they would take on the Hogs straight up and we wouldn't run on them like we ran against Minnesota. Tell them I hope they have fun watching the Super Bowl on television. This was our revenge. This was the Hogs' revenge."
Now the Redskins will take a day off to watch the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets play in the AFC title game today. "It will take that long for this all to sink in," said linebacker Mel Kaufman, who had a crucial fourth-quarter interception. "It's been a long time since something like this has happened to this town."
It's been a decade since the town has been able to celebrate a Super Bowl team. The Redskins made it to Super Bowl VII by beating the Cowboys, 26-3, in a game they dominated almost from the start. Yesterday, they came much closer to staying home next week before Kaufman's interception and Grant's touchdown finally ended Dallas' chances.
For the Cowboys, it was the third straight year they had lost in the NFC championship game. "We didn't have the intensity we needed to stop them," Coach Tom Landry said. "We never got on a good roll. The Redskins were on a roll all year."
This was a day that belonged especially to Riggins and the Hogs, who had been outplayed by Dallas Dec. 5, when the Cowboys gave the Redskins their only loss of the season, 24-10. Riggins gained just 26 yards that day, and the Cowboys sacked Joe Theismann seven times.
But on this afternoon, no one was stopping Riggins or the line, which gave up just three sacks.
Riggins, who had 119 yards two weeks ago against Detroit and a career-high 185 against Minnesota last week, gave the offense the power it needed early and late against a usually overpowering Dallas rush defense. The third straight 100-yard-plus performance in the playoffs was an NFL record, and afterward, he was ecstatic.
"I've waited a long time for this," he said. "I'm really thrilled. To tell you the truth, after the strike, I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue the seaosn. I was ready to pack my bags and head for Kansas. Boy, what a mistake that would have been."
Riggins was helped by a revised Redskin game plan. "We changed some stuff for this game," guard Russ Grimm said. "We were zone blocking last time and not coming off quickly. We went more man-to-man, more double teams this time.
"We decided to take them on, be physical and let the best man win. But we knew we had to run if we were going to win."
Gibbs helped the line by using a new offensive set. He split out tight end Rick Walker, making him into a third wide receiver, and used tight end Don Warren as a man in motion, to block middle linebacker Bob Breunig. The alignment spread out the Cowboys' defense, making it easier to work on the middle.
Dallas opened with a 27-yard field goal and the Redskins responded with an 84-yard, nine-play drive that ended on a 19-yard pass from Theismann to Charlie Brown, who cleanly beat Dennis Thurman. Riggins gained 32 yards in that series.
On the Redskins' next possession, Riggins gained 24 yards and Theismann completed two passes, but Mark Moseley missed a chip-shot field goal from 27 yards. Dallas then committed its first mistake, when rookie Rod Hill muffed a towering punt by Jeff Hayes just before being hit by linebacker Monte Coleman.
The ball tumbled into the end zone, where Coleman fell on it. But under NFL rules, a muff can't be advanced by the defensive team, so the Redskins took over on the 10.
"I was set out wide on our punt coverage team and only one guy, Everson Walls, was on me," said Coleman, a special teams star who usually has two blockers on him. "I was surprised. I just overpowered Walls. I saw the ball hit Hill's arms and roll down. I just went for it. I thought I had a touchdown."
The touchdown came four plays later, when Riggins plunged in from a yard out. Moseley's kick made it 14-3 with 2:41 left in the half.
With 32 seconds remaining, the Cowboys were threatening on the Redskins' 32. White dropped back against the blitzing outside linebackers. He started to pass when Manley, who had beaten tackle Pat Donovan on an inside stunt, broke up the middle and hit White on the dead run. The pass was incomplete and White was knocked out on his feet. He walked off with help, and never returned.
That appeared to be the end for Dallas. Instead, the Cowboys almost got on their own roll during the third quarter behind quarterback Gary Hogeboom, a third-year player who had thrown only eight passes in the NFL.
"It was getting hairy out there for a while, but with our team, you always know we are going to come up with the big play," safety Tony Peters said. "You don't know when it's going to happen, but it will happen."
The Cowboys started a comeback when Hogeboom passed six yards to Drew Pearson against a blitz for a touchdown, cutting a 14-3 halftime deficit to 14-10. The Redskins' offense, after dominating the opening 18 minutes, was being hindered now by bad field position and a much tougher Cowboy defense.
A big play came moments later. Nelms, who earlier had fumbled the opening second-half kickoff, took this one down the right sideline through the initial pack of tacklers. A fine block by Wilbur Jackson on Rafael Septien cleared the way until the Cowboys' 21, where the 76-yard return ended on a tackle by Thurman.
"That maybe was the key play of the game," Gibbs said.
Theismann and Brown combined for a 22-yard pass to the Dallas six, with Brown making the catch on his knees. Then Riggins, behind a fine block by Grimm, ran the final four for a 21-10 lead.
But Hogeboom wasn't finished. Against another blitz, he completed a 23-yard scoring pass to Butch Johnson with 3:25 left in the third period. Then he had Dallas on the Washington 23 early in the fourth quarter, but Septien missed a 42-yard field goal, breaking his playoff record streak at 15 (he earlier had made a 27-yarder).
The Redskins' offense needed another break. It got it moments later when Hogeboom tried to pass to Tony Hill down the right sideline. Kaufman, covering anyone in his short zone, saw the ball coming and made a fine leaping, over-the-shoulder interception at the Dallas 40.
Seven plays later, Moseley made his first field goal after four straight misses. His 29-yarder came after yet another pass from Theismann to Brown, this one a 13-yarder against a safety blitz that had given the Redskins so much trouble in the first game.
Seventeen seconds later, the outcome was all but determined. On first down from the 20 after the ensuing kickoff, the Cowboys called one of their delayed screen passes. Hogeboom waited, but when he threw toward Tony Dorsett in the flat, the onrushing Manley leaped and tipped the ball.
Grant, an offensive guard who was converted to defensive tackle late last season, caught up to the deflection at the 10. Grant broke a tackle at the five before scoring with 6:55 remaining. As he was overwhelmed by celebrating teammates, the crowd began celebrating the Super Bowl trip.
In a few moments, the Redskins celebrated, too, by carrying Gibbs off the field. But first they had to wait out a bizarre ending. With 12 seconds left, both teams thought the game was over and left the field, only to be called back when referee Jerry Seeman insisted the Cowboys run a final play. They did, with Pearson playing quarterback and falling on the ball.
Afterward, Theismann, who had three interceptions in the December game but none this game, was near tears.
"I'm the happiest man in the world," he said. "I never thought this would happen to us or to me. "This is the greatest moment of my life. We beat the Cowboys, we're going to the Super Bowl. What else could you want?"