Having lived luxuriously on poise and control all season, the Green Bay Packers won their second straight National Football League championship last Sunday in Dallas by defeating the Cowboys 34-27 in a flamboyant display of football histrionics. It may not have been the best game ever played, but for pure suspense and unremitting excitement no championship game has approached it for at least eight years.
After all the fireworks and the fumbles, the long passes and the short punts that kept 72,000 Texans and 3,500 Green Bay supporters howling steadily, the whole thing boiled down to four Cowboy plays from the Green Bay two-yard line in the last two minutes of the game.
The Cowboys, who were supposed to be the club that would dissolve if the Packers struck hard and quick, spent the long, bright afternoon demonstrating an extraordinary ability to snarl at adversity. They were scored on twice in the first four and a half minutes to trail the league's most formidable defense by 14 points, but they tied the game by the end of the first period on two long, un-flustered drives engineered by Quarterback Don Meredith.
Then, with five minutes and 20 seconds left to play, the Cowboys slipped 14 points behind again and Meredith faced third down with 20 yards to go from his own 32-yard line. What did he do? He threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to Frank Clarke, his tight end. That big play, like so many others, was a mixture of good planning and good luck.
"Frank ran a zig-out and post move," Meredith said later in the dressing room, slouching sadly on a bench in front of his locker and trying to find solace in a cigarette and a can of Dr. Pepper. "I wanted to freeze Willie Wood, their free safety, so I watched Hayes all the way. Wood was helping out on him, and I waited until I was sure he was out of Clarke's way. I looked at Clarke only at the last second."
What Meredith saw was Clarke alone as a New Year's Day pedestrian on a Dallas street. Tom Brown, the strong-side Green Bay safety who was covering Clarke, had slipped and fallen when the receiver broke to the inside. With Wood preoccupied by Hayes, no one was left to guard Clarke.
The touchdown came with four minutes and nine seconds to play and moved Dallas to within seven points of a tie. Suddenly the Cowboys appeared to be the dominant team, and even Bart Starr (see cover), who cast off his conservative ways for this game, disdained the usual tactic of running out the time on the ground. He got one first down with a daring pass to his tight end, Marv Fleming. Then the Cowboys, gamblers all, blitzed twice. They dropped Starr for an eight-yard loss and caught Jim Taylor seven yards behind the line of scrimmage on a screen pass.
So Don Chandler had to punt. Hurried by an all-out rush from the Cowboy line, he kicked a little trickler out of bounds on the Green Bay 47. The Texans in the stands began to howl in anticipation of a sudden-death overtime game, and Meredith nearly brought it off for them. Don went back to Clarke on a 21-yard pass down to the Green Bay 26, again using Hayes to decoy two Packer defenders out of the pattern. Then he tried Clarke deep in the end zone, and the pass fell incomplete. But Dave Robinson was called for interference and Dallas had the ball on the Green Bay two-yard line. With a minute and 52 seconds to play, the Cowboys had more than ample time in which to score.
Meredith tried the Packer line first, but Dan Reeves got only a yard before the Packers fell on him en masse. Still it was second and goal on the Green Bay one.
"We didn't have a very good game defensively," Linebacker Lee Roy Caffey said later in the dressing room. "But down there, man, it was love, pure love. We knew we could stop them. We got together and said we couldn't let the offensive team down. They had played such a beautiful game. For the first time, down there on the two, we knew we could stop them."