Harvey Martin recovers a first quarter Minnesota fumble in Vikings’ territory to set up Dallas’ first score in the Cowboys’ 23-6 NFC Championship Game victory on January 1, 1978.
The Dallas Cowboys were the NFL’s most dominant team during the 1977 regular season. Dallas started out winning its first eight games, many by substantial margins. After a two week slump in which they lost to St. Louis at home and the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, the Cowboys rattled off four straight victories to end the season to finish at 12-2. A first round playoff rout of the Chicago Bears sent Dallas into the NFC title game, where they’d face a Minnesota Vikings team Dallas had beaten 16-10 at Minnesota in the first week of the season.
The first day of 1978 was cold one in Dallas, with wind chill readings below the freezing mark. However the cold weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd of almost 62,000 at Texas Stadium, a group that believed its team was on a direct path to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 12. After 60 minutes of football, it was clear that they were right.
Dallas jumped on the visitors right from the start. An early first quarter Minnesota fumble was recovered by Harvey Martin at the Vikings 39 yard line to put the Cowboys in scoring position right off the bat. A first down run by Robert Newhouse netted seven yards, and Dallas cashed in on the next play due to a tremendous play design. The Cowboys lined up with flanker Drew Pearson wide to the right. Before the snap, Pearson came in motion all the way across the field. On the snap, quarterback Roger Staubach faked a hand off to rookie sensation Tony Dorsett and then gave the impression that he was throwing a wide receiver screen to Pearson. The Vikings, undoubtedly aware that Pearson was the Cowboys’ number one threat at receiver, bit on the fake and Pearson’s partner Golden Richards escaped behind the Vikings’ defense. Staubach’s pass to Richards was slightly overthrown, but the fourth year receiver cradled it as he fell into the end zone and Dallas was ahead 6-0 after usually reliable kicker Efren Herrera missed the extra point.
The Cowboys struck again in the second quarter, aided by a 14 yard run for a first down on a fake punt by Danny White. Newhouse’s five yard touchdown run and Herrera’s extra point put Dallas up 13-0. Minnesota got two Fred Cox field goals in the second quarter to draw within a touchdown at 13-6, but Herrera’s short field goal near the end of the quarter expanded Dallas’ lead to 10 points at the half.
Dallas’ defense, led by Ed Jones who had eight solo tackles, dominated in the second half, and some help from the special teams and the offense sealed the victory for the Cowboys. Thomas Henderson (who had an interception in the game) was a dominant force at outside linebacker for Dallas in his third NFL season, and he also excelled on special teams. His brutal hit on Minnesota punt returner Manfred Moore in the fourth quarter caused Moore to fumble, with Dallas’ Jay Saldi recovering in Minnesota territory. Dallas then drove for the score that put the game away, with the final points coming on a beautiful Dorsett touchdown scamper around right end on which the Pitt product displayed his trademark acceleration.
On the day, Dallas caused four Minnesota turnovers, sacked Vikings’ quarterback Bob Lee twice and outgained the visitors by 114 yards. A potent Dallas’ rushing attack gained 170 yards on the day, with Newhouse posting a game high 81 and Dorsett chipping in with 71 more.
With team that had numerous stars on both offense and defense, a special teams group that could make big plays and a head coach whose innovation and game planning were second to none, the Cowboys made short work of the NFC in 1977. Two weeks after their championship game win over Minnesota, the Cowboys would prove that they were the NFL’s best with a convincing victory over Denver in Super Bowl 12.