The Washington Redskins' season dangled from a ledge late today at Texas Stadium.
They trailed the Dallas Cowboys by 15 points at halftime and their playoff hopes, it seemed, were a blink away from becoming remote.
Early in the third quarter, though, Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, the littlest Texan of all who had been beaten for two touchdown passes in the first half, returned an interception 32 yards for a score.
That was the spark that rekindled the flame of the team that has appeared in the last two Super Bowls. The Redskins defeated the Cowboys, 30-28, and by drama's end, 64,286 Texans were nearly speechless about how their Cowboys were now on the ledge.
So now, the Washington Redskins' hearts are aflutter again. They are 10-5 and in sole possession of first place in the NFC's Eastern Division with one week to play. Dallas, St. Louis and the New York Giants are one game back at 9-6.
No, the Redskins did not clinch a playoff berth today. But if they beat St. Louis next Sunday at RFK Stadium, they would win the division.
Only one calamitous combination could keep the Redskins from reaching the playoffs: if they lose to St. Louis and the Los Angeles Rams beat San Francisco and the Giants beat New Orleans.
But Redskins defensive tackle Darryl Grant says not to worry about a post-Dallas letdown. "I'm quite sure we will all be up for St. Louis. A lot of us haven't forgotten the way the Cardinals celebrated in front of our bench, pointing fingers at us when they beat us (26-24) in St. Louis," Grant said.
Today, the turnaround was cruel for Dallas. Danny White had thrown for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns to help build a 21-6 halftime edge.
The Dallas defense, often using six or seven defensive backs, blitzed with a frenzy, sacking Joe Theismann a season-high eight times. And Coach Joe Gibbs admitted, "They changed everything they usually do on defense. We had to do more scrambling, more adjusting (on offense) than we've ever had to do."
But Dallas' first-half cool became its collapse in the third quarter. The Cowboys committed four turnovers in the third quarter alone, leading to 17 Redskins points. White said he aggravated an elbow injury in the second half. "It was stiff and sore and swollen, but not painful," he said, wanting to use no alibis.
First, Green returned White's pass, intended for wide receiver Doug Donley, for the touchdown that made it 21-13 with 12:57 left in the third quarter.
"I kept the faith," Green said about being beaten twice for scores. "I have talent. It was given to me, free of charge, so I had nothing else to turn to."
On the next kickoff, Redskins special teams ace Otis Wonsley clobbered returner Chuck McSwain and caused him to fumble. Anthony Washington recovered for the Redskins at the Dallas 31. Next, on third and 17, Theismann threw a 22-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Calvin Muhammad, who beat cornerback Ron Fellows on the left side.
Suddenly, the Redskins had cut it to 21-20 with 11:19 left in the third quarter. The bungling by Dallas continued later in the period when running back Timmy Newsome fumbled and linebacker Mel Kaufman recovered at the Cowboys' 21. This led to Mark Moseley's third straight field goal, this from 21 yards, and gave the Redskins their first lead, 23-21, with 1:20 left in the period.
"It was like we were an animal smelling blood," Redskins free safety Curtis Jordan said. "It was almost like we could hear them in the third quarter saying, 'Oh my God, here they come again.' "
On the first play of the fourth quarter, though, White threw a 43-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Tony Hill. Hill beat cornerback Vernon Dean in man coverage for a 28-23 lead with 14:54 to play. The Redskins were on the ledge again.
"I believe the Redskins had fear in their hearts," Hill said later. "But we just couldn't do it."
The final scoring drive made the Redskins proudest of all. They drove 55 yards in six plays, to the Dallas one. The key play was an 18-yard run on a reverse by wide receiver Art Monk, who used Theismann's block to reach the 15.
Once they reached the one, Riggins twice failed to score. But on third down, he ran behind a group of Hogs who were rattled by injury-induced change today (all-pro left guard Russ Grimm missed most of the second half with an eye laceration).
Riggins pushed in for the touchdown on this third-down play for what became the game-winner with 6:34 to play. Riggins, having rested his sore back two weeks, rushed 111 yards on 24 carries today. It was the 22nd time that he had surpassed 100 yards for the Redskins, breaking Larry Brown's club record of 21 such games.
Dallas was finished for good when White's fourth-down pass from his 28 went incomplete over the middle; 1:17 remained. Perhaps it was fitting that running back Ron Springs, the intended receiver, fell.
The Cowboys began the drive on their 29 with 1:58 to play, needing a field goal to win. But four passes later, they were a yard further back. The Redskins took over with 1:17 left and would have run out the clock had an on-field altercation not caused officials to end the game with 24 seconds left.
Simple and true, Landry said, "The turnovers did it . . . We gave them the momentum with the pass interception by Green. We allowed them to come into the game at that point."
One locker room away, Gibbs was saying, "This was one of the all-time gut checks I've ever been a part of."
It was the first time the Redskins had beaten the Cowboys twice in the regular season.
Moments after they walked underneath a Texas Stadium banner that read "Super Bowl Chokers," the Redskins were talking about survival.
Players said that Gibbs was very intense and emotional at halftime, though he disagreed. Some players admitted to fear that the season was about to short-circuit.
"Truthfully, I thought about that," defensive end Dexter Manley said. "But we have to think positively."
The Redskins' defense had allowed White to complete 13 of 18 passes in the first half. Besides his three scoring passes, there was a 39-yard screen pass to running back Tony Dorsett. It had been a long time since anyone mentioned the name "Pearl Harbor Crew." But it was remembered in the first half today.
"But we knew that they couldn't sustain that kind of play in the second half," linebacker Rich Milot said. "There was no panic feeling. We had seen them throw interceptions and fumble last week at Philadelphia."
"(Defensive Coach) Richie Petitbon was real calm at halftime," linebacker Monte Coleman recalled. "He just told us, 'It's on the line. It's up to us.' " Coleman was in the minority among players when he said he didn't recall Gibbs issuing a halftime wake-up call.
"Well, I was sitting in the back," Coleman said. "I heard a racket up there. I guess it might have been Coach Gibbs."
White was collared in the second half. He completed nine of 24 passes for 115 yards (he finished 22 of 42 for 327 yards). And Dorsett was held to 42 yards on 15 carries for the game, his being the largest chunk of Dallas' 106 yards rushing.
The Redskins said they added only a few defensive tricks in the second half, mostly linebacker blitzes. "About the only thing that changed in the second half," Jordan said, "was that we started playing."
The poor Hogs. This was the most sacks they have yielded since giving up seven in a 24-10 loss to Dallas in the 1982 strike season. Defensive end Jim Jeffcoat was credited with 2 1/2 sacks, middle linebacker Eugene Lockhart had two and safety Bill Bates 1 1/2.
"Sure, we had worked on a lot, put in a great deal of time preparing for their blitz," Gibbs said. "But they had some great individual effort on some of those sacks. It wasn't that we weren't ready and caught unaware."
All-pro left tackle Joe Jacoby hurt a shoulder at the end of the first half. Veteran George Starke entered for one play -- long enough for defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones to race around him to sack Theismann. Then, Grimm left for Irving Community Hospital in the third quarter, never to return.
"They were blitzing everybody from weak-side safety to strong safety to linebackers," said tackle Mark May, who described his day of change thusly: "First, Joe Jacoby went out and I went from right tackle to left tackle. Then Joe came back and I went back to right tackle. Then Russ got hurt and (right guard) Ken Huff went to left guard and I went to right guard. George came back in at right tackle. It was like a Chinese fire drill."
Landry said that the Redskins don't appear as confident as they have the last two years. The Redskins didn't see it that way. "This is just one step closer to the Big One," Kaufman said. "One step closer."
"I was embarrassed in the first half," tight end Rick Walker said. "All of the sudden, it looked like we weren't even going to fight. It was like we forgot to turn the electricity on in the first half.
"This is what we've been talking about for 14 weeks -- chemistry and finding our identity. In the second half today, I think it all came together. We started to jell."
"We played so well," Landry said. "It's a shame we had to lose. We should have won. But some days you don't make the big plays. You gotta live for another day. Our chances are very slim at this point."