At this point, those with rooting interests in the National Football League playoffs should take a deep breath. They may end up holding it Sunday when two conference championship games will determine the Super Bowl contestants.
Excruciating suspense marked the latest round of playoffs games, in which three teams (San Diego, Oakland, and Dallas) nailed down victories in the final minutes, while the fourth (Philadelphia) advanced by overcoming a 14-point deficit.
In Sunday's match-ups, the Eagles host the Cowboys in the National Conference championship at 1 p.m. (Eastern time), with the Raiders going up against the Chargers in San Diego for the American Conference crown several hours later.
This marks the first time division rivals have met in both title games.Since each team has met the other twice during the regular season, the clashes should be charged with more than ordinary emotion.
Earlier, Dallas and Philadelphia traded victories in NFC East confrontations. The Eagles won at home, 17-10, before Dallas returned the favor with a 35-27 decision. The same pattern was followed in the AFC West, where the Chargers took Round 1, 30-24 in overtime, and the Raiders Round 2, 38-24.
These teams not only achieved head-to- head standoffs, each pair wound up with identical records during the regular season. To determine who was the better 12-4 team, Dallas or Philadelphia, the NFL had to compare net points in division games. A similar sort of scrutiny went into differentiating between San Diego's 11-5 record and Oakland's.
Dallas and Oakland are the surviving franchises with previous Super Bowl experience, yet both are "wild cards" -- playoff qualifiers sans division titles. Only one such team has ever made it to the Super Bowl, but that, ahem, was Dallas five years ago.
A format calling for the wild cards to play an extra game and compete on foreign soil makes their row that much harder to hoe. Dallas and Oakland would seem to face an additional challenge -- that of cracking the Super Bowl with new starting quarterbacks, new this year anyhow.
The Raiders' Jim Plunkett is hardly green to the NFL, having been selected ahead of every other collegian in the 1971 pro draft, but he'd been cast in a backup role in recent years until an injury to Oakland starter Dan Pastorini thrust him into the starting spot this season. Danny White spent two years in the World Footbal League before signing on as Roger Staubach's understudy at Dallas in 1976. He spent most of his time on the bench until staubach's retirement this year, though he did fill in admirably on various occasions when Roger was injured.
If these two were question marks to some extent before the season started, however, they've become exclamation points since.
Plunkett guided Oakland to a far better regular-season record than anyone had anticipated, then set up both Raider touchdowns with long passes in the 14-12 upset of Cleveland which lifted them into the title game. White, meanwhile, not only took the "Under Repair" sign off the Dallas franchise, he developed his predecessor's grace under pressure.
"Danny's a winner. I said that all along," Staubach pointed out last weekend. "He's mature; he's got great physical ability. And this year he's proven that when things aren't going well, he can come out of it, not only from game to game but from quarter to quarter."
A case in point was the way he cranked up the Cowboys against Atlanta last Sunday. Down 10 points late in the fourth quarter, he engineered two touchdown drives, twice threading passes to Drew Pearson in the end zone.
If there was a turning point in Dallas's season, it came after an embarrassing 38-13 loss to Los Angeles on Monday night TV Dec. 15. That's when everyone decided to button on his helmet for a full 60 minutes.Since then, Dallas has been hotter than a side order of jalapeno peppers, knocking off Philadelphia to end the regular season, plus Los Angeles and Atlanta in the playoffs.
Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil is understandably concerned about the Cowboys' streak. "They're awfully strong right now," he said. "They play three straight playoff teams and beat them. The time we played three like that -- San Diego, Atlanta, and Dallas [all losses near the end of the season] -- we weren't able to get the job done."
Philadelphia has already had a successful season, winning one more game than a year ago, a division title, and a conference playoff game. Now the Eagles would like to help Philadelphia become the new "city of champions," a goal made possible by the Phillies' World Series triumph and strong basketball and hockey teams.
Looking for any edge they can find, the Eagles will wear white rather than their traditional green home jerseys Sunday, forcing Dallas into blue, a color it wears infrequently. This psychological ploy is meant to remind the Cowboys of their "blue-jersey jinx," which they discount as nonsense.
Dallas claims the Eagles are grasping at straws. "It makes me think they don't have the confidence a division champion should have," says Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president and general manager.
Although Philadelphia finally won last Saturday's error-filled game with Minnesota, 31- 16, the victory didn't come easily over the playoffs' weakest team.
San Diego and Oakland hardly breezed, either, yet they faced stiffer opponents.
The Chargers met Buffalo and won 20-14 on Dan Fouts's 50-yard TD pass to Ron Smith in the waning moments. The victory should dispel any notion the Chargers lack character, a rap some saddled them with after their play- off loss to the injury-racked Houston Oilers last season.
San Diego faces in injury problem of its own against Oakland. The Chargers will be playing without Gregg McCrary, who had become an integral cog in their double-tight end offense. McCrary's absence will take away much of the flexibility built into the team's pass-oriented attack, which normally utilizes one lone ballcarrier.
The Raiders are coming off a win no less dramatic than San Diego's. Oakland appeared doomed when Cleveland, trailing by two points, moved to the Raider 14 -yard line with 56 seconds remaining. But rather than staying on the ground to set up a field goal, the Browns went to the air.When the ball was intercepted by safety Mike Davis, the second- guessers had a field day and Oakland its second playoff victory. The first, a 27-7 drubbing of Houston, set the stage for the controversial firing of Oiler Coach Bum Phillips, who's been replaced by assistant Ed Biles.
The Browns, a team that had won 24 of its previous 32 games in the last two minutes, ran out of trump cards this time. Three missed place kicks earlier in this frigid, wind-swept game convinced Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano that a field goal was no cinch, and that the Browns -- as they had all season -- would live or die by the pass. Ironically, their season ended when Brian Sipe, the league's least-intercepted passer, spiraled the ball into enemy hands.
In retrospect, some will say it was meant to be, since the resulting quartet is historically linked. The Oakland, Dallas, and San Diego franchises were all launched in 1960, the same year Philadelphia won its last championship.