Writing about the Redskins’ long-time rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys isn’t exactly original material. The teams have played over 100 times and are arguably the biggest traditional rivals in NFL history. Up until midway through the 1997 season, the all-time match up was pretty even with Dallas holding a 40-35 advantage. Considering the Cowboys were still in the twilight of their dynastic years, it was a pretty understandable situation for the Redskins. One may have even believed that the Redskins had weathered the storm of the 1990s Cowboys and were ready to jump back ahead of them. That’s when, during a time when both teams ranged from bad to mediocre, the Cowboys inexplicably won 14 of the next 15 games (including 10 straight) through the 2004 season. Mostly due to that puzzling streak of Cowboy success, the Redskins now trail the all-time series 42-62-2. But, until recently, almost every significant moment in the rivalry was just a piece of history from another era.
The embers of the rivalry, which peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, were once again stoked this year as the teams played two huge games on the national stage. When it truly comes down to it, no one game in the NFL is any bigger than the other as they all count the same in the standings. However, no two losses were more damaging to the Cowboys’ playoff aspirations than the two that bookmarked the 2012 holiday season. Conversely, no two games were more instrumental in propelling the Redskins to their first division title this century than the two showdowns against Dallas.
The Redskins’ 38-31 win on Thanksgiving was more symbolic than anything else. Robert Griffin III and his teammates basically announced that they were a contender and ready to hold up their end of the rivalry again. Prior to that game, the Redskins had slipped back into the bad habit of losing to Dallas – dropping six of the past seven games against the Cowboys. And, even with the Redskins defying history to win in Dallas on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys controlled their own destiny when they visited a delirious FedEx Field in late-December for the final game of the regular season. The two teams squared off in what was essentially the NFC East Championship Game and the Redskins ran over the Cowboys en route to a 28-18 win. It’s this type of “do-or-die” match up between the two teams that I wanted to focus on. There have been key late-season games between the two teams, but amazingly, despite the long history and tradition that dates back to 1960, the teams have played in “elimination games” only three other times, with the Redskins only losing once.
1972 NFC Championship Game
The teams met on New Year’s Eve in 1972 to decide who would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. At the time, the edge had to go to Dallas despite the game being played in Washington. In the two previous match ups that season, the Cowboys jumped out to 20-7 and 28-3 leads. The Redskins rallied to win the first game, but lost in Dallas just three weeks prior to this game. There would be no quick start this time. The teams played to a scoreless first quarter and then Washington built a 10-3 halftime lead. At that point, they had to feel great about their chances considering the two second halves they had against Dallas in the regular season. That pattern continued as the Redskins scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win going away, 26-3. The signature play that broke open a tight game was Billy Kilmer’s deep pass to a streaking Charley Taylor down the right sideline. That put the Redskins up 17-3 early in the final period, and the rest was a formality. George Allen’s defense stole the show, holding Roger Staubach to less than 50% completions and the Cowboys to under 200 total yards. The Redskins would go on to lose Super Bowl VII to the Dolphins 14-7.
1979 Regular Season Finale
Despite both teams entering the 1979 season finale with matching 10-5 records, the host Cowboys were favored by over a touchdown. Much like this past season’s game at FedEx Field, the winner of this mid-December game would win the NFC East. Unlike 2012 though, the loser still had every reason to believe that they would slip into the playoffs as a wild card entry. Much like he did earlier in the season when these two teams met, Joe Theismann led the Redskins to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. Dallas stormed back and pulled ahead 21-17 as the fourth quarter began. That’s when things got wild. John Riggins had a monster quarter, scoring two touchdowns and leading another 17-0 run. His 66-yard score seemingly put the game away for the visitors, staking them to a 34-21 lead. That’s when Staubach broke the hearts of Redskins’ fans everywhere. He led the Cowboys on two touchdown drives late in the game, finally throwing the game-winner with under a minute to play. Not only did the Redskins see their shot at a division title evaporate in a matter of minutes, but then found out that they had lost the tie-breaker for the final playoff spot to the Chicago Bears. Despite getting a week off and a home playoff game, Dallas would lose to the Los Angeles Rams two weeks later to end their season.
1982 NFC Championship Game
We Want Dallas! We Want Dallas!
In the closing minutes of a second round playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings, the RFK fans made it very clear that they wanted revenge against their most hated rival. Dallas was the only team to get the better of Joe Gibbs’ Redskins during the strike-shortened 1982 season. They played earlier in the season in Washington and the Cowboys went home with a dominating, 14-point win. The experts expected history to repeat itself and for Dallas, who was making its third straight trip to the conference championship game, to finally break through and advance to the Super Bowl. The Redskins stayed ahead early on, holding an 11-point lead at two different times into the second half. The Cowboys had narrowed their deficit to only 24-17 and were backed up deep in their own territory, when the Redskins’ defense finally put the final nail in the coffin. Backup quarterback Gary Hogeboom was trying to set up a screen pass when Dexter Manley read the play perfectly and tipped the pass. The fluttering ball fell right to fellow defensive lineman Darryl Grant who rumbled into the end zone to put the game away. The stadium rocked and the Redskins went on to win their first Super Bowl (third league title) a week later over the Miami Dolphins.
So, when the stakes are highest, the Redskins are now 3-1 against the hated Cowboys, with only a miracle finish three decades ago keeping them from being perfect in such situations. As the Redskins begin to chip away the all-time series lead that Dallas holds, we can only hope that more key match ups are in our future. It makes for great drama and adds another chapter to this already historic and rich rivalry.
All of those three legendary games occurred either before or early in my life, so I know about their significance and impact only through reading about them or hearing stories. What are your favorite memories of those games? What are your favorite memories of the rivalry in general? Do you think the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry is finally waking from years of dormancy?