Just when you thought the life was out of the St. Louis Cardinals, they pulled a quick rescue job on their season.
The Cardinals revived from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 21-10, tonight before 49,347 at Busch Stadium.
That was the most points the Cardinals (4-5) had scored in a game since September. A freaky 46-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter from Neil Lomax to Pat Tilley (by way of deflection off the fingertips of receiver J.T. Smith) and fullback Earl Ferrell's eight-yard run later in the quarter provided the reversal. When Lomax threw a nine-yard scoring pass to Smith with 4:13 to play, the Cowboys were finished for good.
The Cowboys' offense went kerplunk in the second half as the Cardinals sacked Danny White four times, while shutting down Dallas' rushing.
St. Louis' victory clamped a vise on the NFC East division standings. Dallas and the New York Giants lead at 6-3 and the Washington Redskins suddenly are only one game behind. St. Louis and Philadelphia are 4-5.
In pregame warmups, the Cardinals discovered that they would be without all-pro receiver Roy Green when it was determined that his injured left shin and ankle were too sore to allow him to play.
The Cardinals' offensive line was beaten often during the first half. Lomax was constantly under pressure. Even when there was no pressure, he threw poorly. And running back Ottis Anderson was dropped five times for losses in the first quarter, three times by defensive end Jim Jeffcoat.
Lomax hit wide receiver J.T. Smith (Green's replacement) for gains of 14 and 23 yards, beating defensive backs Everson Walls and Michael Downs on a drive late in the first quarter.
When the drive conked out at the Dallas 27, newly signed Jess Atkinson was given an opportunity to show Cardinals fans that the Neil O'Donoghue days of kicking uncertainty were over at last.
But Atkinson, the former University of Maryland kicker waived last week by the New York Giants, missed wide left on a 45-yard attempt with 1:11 left in the quarter.
Finally, Dallas' offense creaked to life. White turned cool and precise in an 11-play, 93-yard drive. He started locating different receivers. He hit Mike Renfro for six yards, then Karl Powe for 12. The most impressive pass was a 32-yarder to Tony Hill, who split defensive backs Lonnie Young and Wayne Smith, taking the ball to the St. Louis 45.
Several nifty runs by Tony Dorsett and two nine-yard completions to Dorsett put Dallas at the nine. White threaded a precise pass over the middle to Hill, who beat cornerback Cedric Mack for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 56 seconds left in the half.
The Cowboys weren't finished. On the kickoff, the Cardinals' Clyde Duncan misplayed the bouncing ball, tapping it out of bounds at the St. Louis one. Dallas held and took possession at the St. Louis 44 with 21 seconds left.
Busch Stadium was flooded with boos moments later when cornerback Wayne Smith was penalized for pass interference against Hill on a deep pattern down the left sideline, moving the Cowboys to the St. Louis 10 with 13 seconds left.
White threw incomplete into the end zone twice. On the second play, cornerback Young was cited for pass interference against Renfro. Since only four seconds remained, though, Dallas opted not to try for the touchdown from the one. Instead, Rafael Septien kicked a 19-yard field goal for the 10-0 lead, and Busch Stadium seemed to grow just a little colder.
"It was probably as dead a first half as I've ever seen," said Cowboys Coach Tom Landry, denied his 250th NFL victory. "We just needed a big play in the second half. We didn't get it, and they did, with the tipped pass."
A funny thing happened in the third quarter. The Cardinals energized to score two touchdowns and take a 14-10 lead with 4:07 left in the quarter.
Suddenly, Lomax couldn't miss. He was helped immensely on the first scoring drive by Dallas cornerback Ricky Easmon, a rookie from Florida. First, wide receiver Tilley caught a 13-yard pass and the beaten Easmon made matters worse by committing a 15-yard facemask penalty.
Thus, it became a 28-yard play, moving the ball to the Dallas 46. Two plays later, Lomax caught a break. His pass grazed off the fingertips of receiver J.T. Smith and somehow deflected toward Tilley, who caught it at the 27. Easmon was one step behind and Tilley was off for a 46-yard touchdown.
The Cardinals were within 10-7 with 12:05 left in the third quarter. Tilley was so jubilant that he actually spiked the ball before he reached the end zone. The officals didn't catch it, though.
Tilley said he was not the intended receiver. "He threw to J.T. Smith. I saw the ball tipped, and all of a sudden it was in my hands. Routine play with a little luck, I guess."
The Cowboys' offense went out in three plays and back came Lomax. He completed an 11-yard pass to Smith, then a 15-yarder to Tilley. Moments later, Walls was penalized for interfering with Tilley for a 14-yard gain, to the Dallas 21.
Busch Stadium started brewing. Lomax sent a rocket over the middle to Tilley, for another 13 yards to the Dallas eight.
Seconds later, Ferrell made an inside-out move wide left to escape defensive tackle Randy White and linebacker Jeff Rohrer. Ferrell picked up a goal-line block by Tilley and continued into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead.