If you were looking for a pretty football game, one loaded with picturesque pass plays, pirouetting receivers, and textbokk execution, Veterans Stadium was not the place to be Sunday afternoon. On the whole, the National Football Conference championship was a grunt-and-growl struggle between Philadelphia and Dallas with little, beyond the running of Eagle Wilbert Montgomery, to recommend it as an artistic success.
In South Philly, though, beauty is only scoreboard deep these days, making the Eagles' 20-7 victory suitable for framing.
With the triumph goes passage to Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, where Philadelphia will meet Oakland Jan. 25 in the Superdome. The Raiders made their way to the National Football League's title game by defeating SanDiego 34-27 in the American Conference championship.
Oakland won Super Bowl XI; the Eagles, long one of the league's most frustrated franchises, have never before appeared in a game carrying a Roman numeral designation.
"I can't visualize even going to the Super Bowl," said Coach Dick Vermeil, who took over a 4-10 team in 1976 and established a five- year plan the club has overshot. When hired away from UCLA, Vermeil predicted the Eagles would make the playoffs by 1980, a projection that originally appeared ludicrously optimistic. This, however, marks the third straight playoff team Vermiel has produced.
Its experience has made a difference in "the big game," where a lack of maturity caused playoff losses to Atlanta and Tampa Bay the previous two seasons.
Sunday's game offered the ultimate test of the Eagles' ability to rise the occasion. The opponent, after all, was Dallas, an institution in the post-season that often finds a fifth gear when the pressure's greatest.
Consider this: Since 1970 the Cowboys have won 25 of 29 games in December and 16 of 24 playoff contests. Based on their play of late, there was little reason to believe Dallas wouldn't make it to a record sixth Super Bowl.
On successive weekends (including the last one of the regular season), the Cowboys had knocked off Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, while scoring 99 points against three superb defenses. By contrast, the Eagles had not turned in an impressive performance in more than a month, making their fast 11-1 start seem ages ago.
The Cowboys had every reason to swagger into town, even if Philadelphia had beaten them out of the NFC Eastern Division title on the basis of net points (the teams finished the regular season with identical 12-4 records).
The Eagles, meanwhile, appeared frayed at the edges. Their receiving corps was thinned by injuries that led to the activation of Rodney Parker, a "guy off the street," as Vermeil called him. The running game hardly looked any better, with the much-battered Montgomery developing a knee problem during one of the team's practice sessions in Tampa, Fla.
As bleak as the situation seemed, the Eagles knew inwardly they had the mental edge, especially with the game in Philadelphia.
"I think we set them up," quarterback Ron Jaworski said of the Cowboys. "We wanted everybody to think we were disorganized and scrambling. We were giving the press all that stuff about how happy we were to be here [in the NFC championship game] and how Dallas had all the experience. We were confident all week, but we decided to lay low."
Vermeil realized Dallas was ripe for a letdown, but only if his team played "Eagle football," which places emphasis on a rugged defense and solid running attack. Philadelphia got both.
With the help of the cold temperature, which prevented either Jaworski or Dallas's Danny White from throwing well, the Eagles relinquished just one touchdown to the league's highest scoring offense. A key was limiting the the Cowboy's perennial 1,000-yard rusher, Tony Dorsett, to just 41 yards, and forcing him to cough up the ball twice on fumbles.
Dorsett's counterpart with the Eagles, meanwhile, was having a field day. The first indication Montgomery had that he would find daylight in the line came on Philadelphia's second play from scrimmage, when Wilbert made one quick cut and bolted 42- untouched yards to a touchdown past a frozen Dallas defense.
Before the afternoon was over, he would use his quicksilver moves, cutbacks, and sheer power to rack up 194 yards, just two shy of the playoff record set by another Eagle, Steve Van Buren, 31 years earlier. Though Montgomery may have missed that mark, he became the first player ever to gain 100 yards against Dallas in a playoff game.
At halftime the game was tied 7-7, but thereafter Philadelphia slowly began to capitalize on Cowboy miscues, costly fumbles by Dorsett and White. Leroy Harris once slashed through some heavy traffic on a nine-yard touchdown run, while barefooted Tony Franklin connected on field goals of 20 and 26 yards to account for the other Philadelphia points.
For Dallas, the onus having to play a wild-card game, giving the Eagles a week to rest during the first week of the playoffs, may have been more of a burden than anticipated.