It was a cold day at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium for this Divisional Playoff game against the Falcons. They had won the NFC West division with a 12-4 record. Coming to town was the Wildcard Cowboys with an identical 12-4 record, but lost out on the NFC East crown to the Philadelphia Eagles the last week of the season. The Cowboys had put the LA Rams away a week earlier in the Wildcard game, 34-13 at Texas Stadium.
Now they would meet up with the young and talented Atlanta Falcons. Their offense led by Steve Bartkowski at quarterback, running backs William Andrews and Lynn Cain and receivers Alfred Jenkins and Junior Miller.
Early in the first quarter Atlanta took command and seemed to drive the ball at will against the Dallas defense. Receiver Alfred Jenkins was wide open in the end zone, but dropped what would have been a sure touchdown and a 7-0 Atlanta lead. Atlanta settled for a Tim Mazzetti field goal for a 3-0 lead.
After a Dallas punt by Danny White, Atlanta took over and again started to drive on the Dallas defense. Once again Steve Bartkowski went to Alfred Jenkins who was wide open for a 66 yard touchdown pass and a 10-0 lead. Jenkins would dominate the Dallas secondary in the first half catching three passes for over 100 yards.
On the Cowboys next possession they drove down to the Atlanta 21 yard line. Danny White seemed to throw a perfect touchdown pass to receiver Butch Johnson who dropped the ball after he crossed the goal line. Officials ruled the pass incomplete. Television angles only showed Johnson from behind so it was unclear if Johnson ever had complete control of the ball in the end zone. Dallas settled for a Rafael Septien field goal to cut the Atlanta lead to 10-3.
Dallas would force an Atlanta fumble by Bartkowski that linebacker Anthony Dickerson recovered. Danny White and the offense went back to work as White connected with tight end Billy Joe Dupree and running back Ron Springs on a few passes. Mixed in between a few Tony Dorsett runs. Dallas got to the Atlanta five yard line when White passed to Dupree on the goal line and he forced himself into the end zone for the game tying touchdown.
The turnover did not seem to affect the Atlanta offense. Bartkowski continued to throw on the Dallas defense and once again found a wide open Jenkins. This time for a 50 yard gain. The Falcons drove to the Dallas one yard line where Lynn Cain ran it in and took the lead back, 17-10.
After another Dallas punt, Atlanta tried to position themselves for another score before halftime, but Dallas cornerback Steve Wilson made a diving interception of a Bartkowski pass with seven seconds left in the half to stop the drive.
Although Dallas was pretty much dominated in the first half by the Falcons, they found themselves down by only seven points at the start of the third quarter. They came out in the third with a nice pass and run from White to Preston Pearson who raced 34 yards to the Atlanta 20 yard line, but as he was being tackled Pearson fumbled the ball and Atlanta recovered.
Steve Bartkowski would need just 3:40 to drive his offense down the field. Once again hitting Alfred Jenkins for a 22 yard gain on the first play of the drive. It would be Jenkins last reception of the game. Bartkowski would make Dallas pay for the turnover by connecting with William Andrews on a 12 yard touchdown pass to increase the Atlanta lead to 24-10.
The Dallas offense seemed to wake up as the third quarter was ending. Danny White led Dallas on an 85 yard, 8 play drive that ate up 4:51 of the clock and took them into the fourth quarter. Robert Newhouse would finish the drive with a one yard touchdown run bringing the Cowboys back within seven points, 24-17.
The Dallas defense would force an Atlanta punt on their next possession, but just when you thought the Dallas offense would start rolling again a tipped pass resulted in a turnover. Danny White’s pass to Butch Johnson which was a little high tipped off Johnson’s fingers and Atlanta intercepted. Once again Atlanta took advantage of the turnover and converted it into points. Tim Mazzetti kicked another field goal with 6:37 left in the game to put the Falcons ahead 27-17.
This was only Danny White’s second playoff game as a starter after taking over for the retired Roger Staubach after the 1979 season. A lot of pressure comes with being the quarterback of the Cowboys, especially taking over for a legend like Staubach.
Danny White once again started marching the Dallas offense down the field after the Atlanta field goal. It only took White five plays covering 62 yards, which were all passes to get Dallas a score. As White scrambled around in the backfield he pointed into the end zone trying to confuse the Atlanta secondary. Atlanta would not bite on White’s pointing, but White decided to throw anyway and threw a beautiful pass in between two defenders that Drew Pearson caught for a 14 yard touchdown. Cutting the Atlanta lead to 27-24 with only 3:40 left in the game.
The Dallas defense forced Atlanta into a three and out on their next possession, but not after some wild footwork by Ed (Too Tall) Jones. On third down for Atlanta Jones jumped off-sides, but never touched an Atlanta player. Jones jumped back on side, but lost his balance and had to do a tight rope act across the rest of the Dallas defensive line as Bartkowski took the snap. Lucky enough no penalty was called and Atlanta would have to punt on their next play.
Dallas got the ball back with only 1:48 left to play on their own 29 yard line. Once again it was Danny White who took to the air with crisp passes to many different receivers. Four plays, all passes put Dallas at the Atlanta 23 yard line. On the fifth play White would throw off balance into the end zone where Mr. Clutch would be waiting. Once again it would be Drew Pearson coming down with the pass in the end zone for Dallas’ first lead of the game. With the extra point Dallas could have sealed the victory, but holder Charlie Waters fumbled the snap and was forced to throw into the end zone which fell incomplete. Dallas had the lead 30-27 with only 42 seconds left in the game.
On first down for Atlanta following the kickoff, Dallas veteran Larry Cole came around the left end and sacked Bartkowski at his own three yard line. Atlanta could only get to their own 21 yard line before a fourth down pass fell incomplete. Which allowed Dallas to run out the last few seconds and seal the victory over the Falcons 30-27.
“The best thing I can say about this bunch,” said an obviously spent Landry afterwards, “is that they won’t quit. Drew’s catches were miracles. Our guys were simply amazing. They just kept coming back.
“Danny probably felt more pressure today than he has all year and he responded. The touchdowns he threw were amazing.”
“This,” White was quick to admit, “was the biggest game I’ve played and I was really nervous going into it. But it’s comforting to look around and see the kind of help I was getting from everyone. I felt I was throwing the ball well and never really thought we were out of the game.”
The victory put the Dallas Cowboys into the NFC Championship game where they would lose to the Eagles 20-7 in Philadelphia the following week.
The playoff game against the Falcons will always be one of my favorites. It was exciting from beginning to end. The game would also be voted one of the top ten games in Dallas Cowboys history.
You can see the box score here…