January 4, 2011

1981: Cowboys Come from Behind to Beat Falcons in Divisional Playoff Game

The NFC Divisional playoff game on January 4, 1981 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium featured two teams that had compiled 12-4 records during the 1980 regular season. However, the visiting Dallas Cowboys had been regular participants in the postseason since 1966 (they had only missed in 1974) while the host Atlanta Falcons were making just their second foray into the playoffs.

The Cowboys, coached by Tom Landry, were in transition. Gone was Hall of Fame QB Roger Staubach, who had retired following the ’79 season while still in top form, and replaced by backup Danny White (pictured above). Gone also to retirement was FS Cliff Harris, and questions regarding the secondary dogged the club all season. But Dallas still had RB Tony Dorsett (1185 yards rushing), wide receivers Drew Pearson and Tony Hill, DT Randy White, and MLB Bob Breunig, plus DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones had returned after a year’s retirement to pursue a boxing career. The Cowboys finished second in the NFC East and had easily dispatched the Rams (who had upset them in the 1979 postseason) in the Wild Card playoff game.

Atlanta, under Head Coach Leeman Bennett, had gotten off to a 3-3 start but then put together a nine-game winning streak on the way to placing first in the NFC West. QB Steve Bartkowski (pictured below left) led the league in touchdown passes (31) while placing fifth with 3544 passing yards and fourth with a passer rating of 88.2. RB William Andrews gained 1308 yards on the ground while WR Alfred Jenkins (58 catches, 1035 yards) and rookie TE Junior Miller also earned trips to the Pro Bowl. Two rookie linebackers, Buddy Curry and Al Richardson, had an impact on defense, as did LB Joel Williams, who was unofficially credited with 16 sacks (sacks were not yet an officially-compiled statistic).

The Falcons put together a scoring drive the first time they had the ball, although Jenkins dropped a pass in the end zone and they settled for a 38-yard field goal by Tim Mazzetti. However, on the next Atlanta possession, Jenkins made up for the drop by catching a bomb from Bartkowski for a 60-yard touchdown and 10-0 lead with 4:50 left in the opening period.

Just before the end of the first quarter, the Cowboys got on the board with a Rafael Septien field goal of 38 yards. Dallas tied the score in the second quarter after recovering a Bartkowski fumble at the Atlanta 44, which set up a five-yard TD pass from White to TE Billy Joe DuPree. But later in the period, Bartkowski completed a 50-yard pass to Jenkins to set up a one-yard TD carry by RB Lynn Cain. The Falcons took a 17-10 lead into halftime.

In the third quarter, it appeared that Dallas was on the way to another score when Falcons FS Tom Pridemore intercepted a White pass at the Atlanta 15. The Falcons then responded by driving 70 yards and Bartkowski threw to Andrews for a 12-yard touchdown. Atlanta was now ahead by 24-10 with just over seven minutes remaining in the period.

Early in the fourth quarter, RB Robert Newhouse scored for the Cowboys on a one-yard TD plunge, but the Falcons came back with a Mazzetti field goal from 34 yards to make it 27-17 with 6:37 left to play.

With their backs to the wall, the Cowboys drove 62 yards, all on passes by White, the final one a 14-yard touchdown throw to Drew Pearson. It was now a three-point game, and on the ensuing possession the Falcons were stifled by the Dallas defense and had to punt. The Cowboys got the ball on their 30 with 1:48 remaining.

Once again the Dallas offense moved down the field, keyed by a 20-yard pass to WR Butch Johnson. White was playing for a tying field goal, but instead found Pearson for a 23-yard touchdown pass that put the Cowboys ahead – but by only three points, since the ensuing extra point attempt failed.

Atlanta had one last chance, but Bartkowski was sacked for a nine-yard loss and completed one of three passes before having to turn the ball over on downs. The Cowboys won by a score of 30-27.

Dallas outgained the Falcons (422 yards to 371) and had more first downs (22 to 18). Both teams turned the ball over twice, while the Cowboys sacked Bartkowski four times as against White being dumped just once.

Danny White completed 25 of 39 passes for 322 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, but 15 of 20 for 239 yards of that came in the second half. Drew Pearson (pictured at right) caught 5 passes, four of them in the last two drives, for 90 yards and the two big TDs. Tony Dorsett led the Cowboys in rushing with 51 yards on 10 carries and also had 5 pass receptions for 40 yards.

For White, it was the second time that he led the Cowboys to a playoff win over the Falcons - in 1978, after Staubach was injured with Dallas behind in a Divisional playoff game against Atlanta at Texas Stadium, he had rallied the team to a 27-20 victory. But since taking over as the starting quarterback, he had labored in his predecessor’s shadow, making the come-from-behind playoff win particularly gratifying.

The comeback scenario was even more familiar to the eighth-year veteran wide receiver Pearson, who had been part of several of them during the Staubach era – perhaps most notably the last-second “Hail Mary” catch in an NFC Divisional playoff game against the Vikings following the 1975 season.

As for Atlanta, Steve Bartkowski was successful on 18 of 33 passes for 320 yards with two touchdowns and one picked off. Alfred Jenkins (pictured at left) caught 4 passes for 155 yards and a TD, while WR Wallace Francis contributed 6 receptions for 66 yards. Both Lynn Cain and William Andrews rushed for 43 yards (on 13 and 14 attempts, respectively).

“What can you say? It was just a tremendous thing (the comeback),” Tom Landry said. “When we got down by two touchdowns (24-10) in the third quarter, I thought our chances of coming back were slim. But the ball bounces funny sometimes.”

“It was a bitter pill to swallow,” said Falcons' Coach Bennett. “I still feel we're good enough to go to the Super Bowl. Any team that wins 12 games is good enough. But it's a very empty feeling losing in the playoffs.”

Dallas lost the NFC Championship game the next week to the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles. Atlanta dropped off to a disappointing 7-9 record in 1981.

Danny White led the Cowboys to three straight conference championship games, but failed to make it to the Super Bowl and, while he had a fine career, suffered in comparison to the legendary Staubach.