Saturday, Dec. 19, Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands, East Rutherford, N.J. Weather—clear, winds 15 to 23 mph, temperature 25°, wind chill 5°.
The Dallas Cowboys are first out, prancing in their new blue uniforms, cringing a little as the cruel wind takes its first bite. The Danville (Pa.) High School Band strikes up the Russian song Meadowlands, and one of the strangest and most dramatic sports weekends in Greater New York history begins.
It is a weekend that will end 28 hours later when the Jets win a ball game to guarantee themselves a playoff spot and the Giants do the celebrating; when the Jets' 28-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers is punctuated by the loud popping of champagne corks, not in the Shea Stadium locker room but in the Giants' Press Box Lounge in the Meadowlands 20 miles to the west. Forty or so members of the Giants' squad, plus club officials, wives, children, friends and assorted ornaments had gathered to watch the Jets on TV and cheer them on. The Giants had beaten the Cowboys 13-10 in a vicious and at times inspirational game that ended with Ray Perkins, the coach, carrying Joe Danelo, the kicker whose field goal won it in overtime, off the field on his shoulders. But they were only halfway home. The Jets had to knock the Packers out of the playoff picture for the Giants, or it would be no football for them for Christmas.
So now, arm in arm, the Jets and Giants come marching into the playoffs. When's the last time both the New York area teams were playoff-bound? Never. When's the last time both of them had a winning record in the same year? Never.
"We didn't help the Giants; the Giants helped the Giants," Jet Linebacker Greg Buttle said. "First they had to beat Dallas, and that isn't exactly easy."
The Giants started cranking up for the Dallas game early. When they trooped into their locker room the week before, after beating St. Louis 20-10, they found a message chalked on the blackboard: WHAT YOU'VE NEVER HAD AND CAN'T HAVE, YOU'LL NEVER MISS. BUT WHAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR GRASP AND SQUANDER, YOU'LL TRULY MISS!! SIGNED, A COUPLE OF VETERANS WHO'VE NEVER BEEN. The veterans who'd never been were defensive players, linebackers Brian Kelley and Brad Van Pelt. The defense had been carrying the Giants in the four games since they had lost Quarterback Phil Simms with a shoulder separation. Their offense was shaky, averaging 2½ turnovers and 15 points per game, but the defense gave up only 11 a game, and the Giants won three of the four to give them an 8-7 record and a shot at their first trip to the playoffs in 18 years.
Perkins wasn't worried about his defense against Dallas. As one Giant defender said, "When you hit the Cowboys early, and keep hitting them, they'll lose interest—particularly if it's a game they're not totally committed to." And what was there to get the Cowboys up for this one? What could Coach Tom Landry say to inspire them? O.K., fellas, let's win it so we can get the home-field advantage in the NFC championship game three weeks from now—if the 49ers lose to New Orleans, that is. Too complicated.
Last year the Giants beat Dallas on Nov. 9 with a wide-open offense that was good for 38 points and 462 yards, but this time Perkins was going to be more basic. He would start off with three wide receivers, one of them a flexed, or spread, tight end; he would run at the Cowboys from that. Spreading the tight end would get Cowboy Strong Safety Charlie Waters out wide, where he couldn't crack in and jam the running, for which he is noted. The pass patterns would be mostly quick stuff over the middle.
Perkins' game plan was perfect except for one thing. It didn't take into account missed field goals. Danelo blew three short ones in the first quarter, a line-drive 21-yarder that sailed wide, then a 32-yarder, which was called back when the Cowboys jumped offside, then the 27-yarder that followed. Coming in, Danelo had been 12 for 12 from 33 yards and in.
"I kind of lunged at the first one," said Danelo, whose 35-yarder in overtime made him the game's hero—sort of. "I thought, 'What am I doing out here? My son can kick a 21-yard field goal.' On the second one Too Tall Jones was in my face. I tried to tap the third one and it went wide. I was thinking, 'Lord, just give me a chance to redeem myself.' "