The defending Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys celebrate Roger Staubach’s last minute touchdown pass to Ron Sellers that gave the Cowboys a 30-28 comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers in a NFC Divisional Playoff game on December 23, 1972 at Candlestick Park.
Instead of sugar plums and candy, two California-based teams found their stockings filled with coal courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys in consecutive years on December 23rd in Cowboys’ history. A thrilling 30-28 win at San Francisco on this day in 1972 gave the Cowboys their third consecutive post-season victory over the Niners, and a 27-16 dispatching of the Los Angeles Rams one year later sent the southern Californians to the same fate their neighbors to the north had experienced one year earlier.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the two playoff wins against franchises the Cowboys have faced seven times each in the post-season.
The defending Super Bowl Champion Cowboys lost star quarterback Roger Staubach to injury in the pre-season, but veteran Craig Morton stepped in to lead Dallas to a 10-4 record and a NFC wildcard spot. In the season’s final games Staubach was healthy enough to play, but Coach Tom Landry stuck with Morton to start in the Cowboys’ first round playoff game at Candlestick Park against the 49ers.
Having lost to Dallas in the NFC Championship games following the 1970 and 1971 seasons, the Niners were primed to exact some revenge against a team that had kept it from appearing in the franchises first Super Bowl. When speedy Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score to put the Niners up 7-0 seconds into the game, it appeared that the home team might get its wish after two years of disappointment.
San Francisco rode the momentum of Washington’s fine play to dominate the first three quarters of play, building a 28-13 lead when Larry Schreiber scored the third of his one yard touchdown runs in the game. Sloppy play by Dallas, which included three fumbles lost, two interceptions and several key dropped passes, made it appear as the Cowboys’ defense of their crown would end with a whimper instead of a bang.
To the rescue came Captain America, Roger Staubach, who shook off the rust of a season of little activity to inject some life into Dallas’ offense. Staubach led Dallas to a short Toni Fritsch field goal to cut the lead to 28-16, but the real fireworks ensued in Dallas’ final two possessions.
First Staubach found received Billy Parks for two key passes, the last one a 21 yard touchdown on a beautifully executed deep in to draw the visitors within five points of the lead with about two minutes left to play. On a day when the Immaculate Reception boosted the Pittsburgh Steelers to a shocking win over the Oakland Raiders in the eastern half of the country, a similarly bizarre play helped Dallas get into position to make December 23, 1972 a truly memorable day in NFL history. Cowboys’ placekicker Fritsch, a former Austrian soccer star, used his soccer skills to execute an onside kick with his off-leg that Mel Renfro recovered to keep the ball in Dallas’ hands.
From there, Staubach used his arms and legs to get the ball to the Niners’ 10 yard line from where he connected with Ron Sellers for a scoring pass that silenced the boisterous crowd of 49er faithful. Coach Landry later remarked that the comeback was the best one the team had experienced up to that point. With Staubach at quarterback, there’d be more to come in later years.
The Cowboys’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1973 NFC Divisional Playoffs was not as exciting as their win over San Francisco one year earlier, but it was still a game that Cowboys’ fans (at least those of a sufficiently old age like me!) remember fondly.
Dallas built an early 14-0 lead, using Staubach’s passing and a strong running game to take control. However the feisty Rams, who had beaten Dallas 37-31 at the LA Coliseum in the regular season, refused to stay down and battled back to within one point of Dallas at 17-16 on a fourth quarter touchdown run by Tony Baker.
With their lead slipping away and facing a third and long situation at their own 13 yard line, Staubach called on precocious rookie Drew Pearson to make a play that shocked the Rams and helped Dallas to victory. Staubach threw a deep in to Pearson that the lithe receiver caught between two Ram defenders. While the defenders collided going for the ball, Pearson emerged and sped to an 83 yard touchdown that gave Dallas a 24-16 lead. The Cowboys would finish Los Angeles off with a Fritsch field goal later in the quarter as the team improved its post-season record at Texas Stadium to 2-0.
The Staubach-Pearson combination would prove to be among the best in NFL history, and the two clutch performers would combine for an even more memorable playoff touchdown two years later.