In backup strength the teams are about equal. Ryan, who was benched in the third game of the season, is still one of the most accurate long passers in the game. Craig Morton, Meredith's replacement at quarterback, showed much more poise and accuracy during 1968 than he did in 1967.
The Cowboys, says Tom Landry, their coach, are better this season. "This is the best Cowboy team ever," he said huffily when Dallas adherents were miffed by lackluster performances following an early loss to Green Bay. "People are using a different yardstick to measure us by. I don't know what they want."
Well, by any yardstick the Cowboys should be better than Cleveland. They have an edge in passing; although the Browns are more of a deep threat running, the Cowboy defense has been together longer and is superior to Cleveland's. That should be enough to put the Cowboys into their third straight NFL championship game, this time against the Baltimore Colts in Dallas on Dec. 29.
Baltimore may prove no more of a bargain for the Cowboys than was Green Bay in the last two championship games. The Colts are like the Packer championship clubs—sound of wind and limb and possessed of no flaws.
The Cowboy-Packer games were both spectacular affairs. Cowboys vs. Colts may turn out to be less so, because of the possibility that the airtight defense on both sides may stifle offensive display. However, it is unwise to assume that a game will be quiet and low-scoring because both teams have strong defenses. Two seasons ago the Packers and the Cowboys were both among the league leaders defensively, and yet the score was 34-27. The Arctic Bowl in Green Bay last year between the same two teams produced 38 points, though both had to skate precariously on the thin ice of Lambeau Field. On a reasonable surface you might have expected two or three more touchdowns. It is not likely, but this year's game could be high-scoring, too.
On offense Baltimore has a clear edge at quarterback, even though Earl Morrall's record is almost identical to Meredith's. The two quarterbacks finished one-two in passing in the NFL. But Baltimore certainly comes up with better support for Morrall than the Cowboys do for Meredith, and that could be a major factor. Behind Morrall is Johnny Unitas, who missed almost the entire season with the grandfather of all tennis elbows. Unitas returned to action briefly late in the year and demonstrated that while he may not be able to throw deep quite as well as before, he is still a master at picking apart a defense, reading a blitz and spearing a receiver on those sideline and slant-in passes that keep a drive alive and allow a team to control the game. Morton, Meredith's replacement, has had little experience in championship games.
The Colt passing attack is not based on the bomb; Jimmy Orr, Ray Perkins and Willie Richardson cannot match Dallas' Rentzel and Hayes in pure speed. But Orr has more subtlety in his patterns than either of the Cowboy ends, and in John Mackey the Colts have one of the two or three best tight ends in the business. The running backs on the two clubs are about equal; Don Perkins gives the Cowboys the best bet for a long always a threat on the option pass for Baltimore.
The Cowboys will have more difficulty penetrating the Baltimore defense than they will that of Cleveland. The Colts gave up only 144 points, same as the '63 Bears and fewer than any other team since 1946. They should put great pressure on Meredith with a quick line and linebackers who are more apt to blitz than Cleveland's, though the Colts are not primarily a blitzing defense. But when they do send Dennis Gaubatz, Mike Curtis or Don Shinnick on a scalping expedition, the element of surprise works heavily in their favor.
Yet, though the Colt defense is superb, it is spotted with young players just maturing in their positions. It is unlikely that it will react as well as the veteran Cowboy unit under championship pressure. Most of the Dallas defense has been together as a group for three years now and the reactions are instant and accurate. Since both teams employ an unusual number of patterns on both offense and defense, the game could well be decided in the guessing contests between offensive and defensive signal-callers. When that happens it is almost axiomatic to go with the older defense—in this case, Dallas.
The game is a tossup, but the flip should favor the Cowboys. After all, they have lost two tossups in a row.