Craig Morton had a lousy afternoon. He completed but eight of 24 for 92 yards and had two passes intercepted, one of which was returned 88 yards for a touchdown by Walt Sumner, another rookie defensive back. But ill fortune came early and stayed late for all the Cowboys. One of the few times in their dreary afternoon that they contained Cleveland was on the Browns' first series after the opening kickoff. The Browns punted from their 32. The ball was poorly kicked and caromed off the leg of Cowboy Tight End Rayfield Wright, enabling Cleveland's Bob Matheson to pounce on it at the Dallas 34.
Nelsen tried a few running plays, then set up the first touchdown with short passes, first to Warfield, then to Tight End Milt Morin, before Bo Scott ran in for the score from the two. On the next Cleveland series, Cornell Green intercepted a Nelsen pass and returned it to the Cleveland 32, but Otto Brown was called for pass interference and Cleveland had a first down on its 48. It was bad luck, but the Dallas defeat was not due to bad luck. Credit it instead to a cohesive, alert Cleveland secondary, given good help by mobile linebackers, and a line that put much more pressure on Morton than the Cowboys' touted front four put on Nelsen. In the first half this defense was so strong that Dallas had the ball for only 17 plays, which gained a total of 39 yards.
Cleveland added a six-yard touchdown pass from Nelsen to Morin and a 29-yard Don Cockroft field goal to lead 17-0 at the half. It hardly seemed possible, but the worst was yet to come for Dallas. In the opening moments of the second half Cleveland Linebacker Jim Houston intercepted a poorly thrown Morton pass and returned it 35 yards to the Dallas 19. It took Nelsen three plays to cash in, the big one being a 16-yard screen pass to Leroy Kelly. Scott scored again from the two.
The interception prompted the fans to chant "We want Roger," but they didn't get Staubach until six minutes into the fourth period, by which time the game was a farce. Morton had thrown the 88-yard interception to Sumner, the Browns had run the score to 38-7 and Landry was looking to the distant future as he put in his rookie quarterback and two fresh setbacks. Staubach got a touchdown on a five-yard pass to Lance Rentzel and thus became the only bright spot for Dallas in a day of rain, gloom and bloopers—the most comical of which was Mike Clark's whiff of an attempted onside kick.
By game's end the Cowboys were in a state of shock. "I don't understand it at all," a grim Landry said, "but if they play as well against the Vikings as they did against us, they'll win. Everything they did worked."
Mel Renfro, who covered Warfield when he was split to the wide side, said, "That first bad break on the punt foreshadowed it all. This was a day of bad luck and despair. We were confused on their sets sometimes and there was a lot of noise out there, too. Against the Vikings? The Browns have it all. Two good running backs, three great receivers. Nelsen was hitting them in the eye. If they can bring themselves up to the challenge, they can beat the Vikings."
Morton simply said, "I apologize for the way I played today." But at least one Dallas disc jockey wasn't accepting any apologies. An hour after the game he told his listeners, "I understand the Cowboys felt that they were well prepared for this game. Jeez, just think of what would have happened if they hadn't been ready."
The Browns took their victory calmly, as though they had been sure of it all along. They had planned to use short passes to negate the Dallas rush and to run straight at All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly from time to time to inhibit his charge, and they executed this plan perfectly. The Brown defense, which rarely depends on the blitz, covered the Cowboy receivers closely and got a lot of help from Morton, who couldn't hit Hayes or Rentzel even when they were open. As an indication of Cleveland's preparation for the game, the team notebooks on the Dallas offense were the thickest of any all season, with some 200 pages on passing plays to 65 on running plays.
The Brown defenders came into the game worked up by an early-season Tom Landry quote. He had said the Brown defense was like a rubber band, giving but never breaking, and he meant it as a compliment. The Browns took it as an insult. On the blackboard in the Cleveland locker room someone wrote, "Rubber band? How about steel band?" A poster in the practice field locker room had a rubber band dangling from each Cleveland defensive position, but the day after it was put up it was gone, presumably on orders from Coach Collier, a businesslike man who doesn't like that kind of preparation. Indeed, Clevelanders call their team "the businessman team" because of this attitude.
Jack Gregory, a fine end in the almost anonymous Cleveland front four, said, "With all their talent, if you come out and stick it to Dallas early, something happens. If you come out fired up and attack them, it seems like they don't want to get hit. We play as a team and we don't lose our poise. Minnesota plays the same way. They're a team and they depend on one another."