On Christmas Day in Bloomington, the Minnesota Vikings, a team that had been uncharitable to its opponents all year, played reluctant Santa Claus to the Dallas Cowboys.
Five times on the unseasonably warm afternoon the cold Vikings made a gift of the ball to Dallas, and the Cowboys turned three of these presents—a fumble and two pass interceptions—into two field goals and a touchdown. Late in the third period, on their only prolonged drive, an eight-play, 52-yard march, the Cowboys added another touchdown, their final score in a 20-12 win.
Bud Grant, the icy-eyed Minnesota coach, decided on Christmas Eve to start Bob Lee, the punting member of his trio of quarterbacks. Asked why, he said, "At 10:30 in the morning he seemed to be the best choice." Lee lacks the experience of Gary Cuozzo and Norm Snead, but he is a stronger runner than either and better able to elude the Dallas pass rush. Lee did, indeed, avoid being sacked, but his passing was erratic and often predictable, much to the joy of the alert Cowboy defense.
The first half was interesting primarily for the exceptionally savage line play by both teams. The Vikings double-teamed All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly but he still managed to split his blockers often enough to make tackles at the line of scrimmage, and the attention paid Lilly made life easier for the other three defensive linemen, who along with Lilly contained the Viking running game.
The first Dallas score was set up by a thumping tackle by End Larry Cole, which jarred the ball loose from Dave Osborn, Minnesota's starting fullback. Jethro Pugh recovered for the Cowboys on the Minnesota 36-yard line and, following a Roger Staubach scramble to the 19, Mike Clark kicked a 26-yard field goal.
The Minnesota equivalent of Lilly is Alan Page, who dropped Staubach for a safety in the fourth quarter. At 6'4", 245, Page is an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Lilly, but he may be the quickest defensive tackle in the NFL. Dallas Guard John Niland, who is about Page's size, had most of the responsibility for him and he prepared himself for the chore by deliberately losing five pounds in the week preceding the game.
"I'm probably a little stronger than Page," Niland said after the game, his nose marked by the badge of the offensive lineman, an angry red abrasion across the bridge where the edge of the helmet hits during head-on blocks. "I knew he couldn't overpower me, so I worked on my quickness."
Niland is squarely built, with a powerful torso and thickly muscled arms, and there are few tackles with the pure strength to run over him. "I'm lucky in having Bob Lilly to work with, too," he went on. " Lilly and Bill Gregory are very quick, much like Page. Of course, I didn't blank Page out, no one can do that. But I'm satisfied."
All the Dallas offensive linemen played well and they, too, have reason to be satisfied, but Rayfield Wright, a five-year veteran from Fort Valley (Ga.) State, did an especially commendable job on Carl Eller, the Vikings' All-Pro defensive end. Staubach, playing what may have been the best pressure game of his career, generally had enough time to get off his passes—he completed 10 of 14 and had no interceptions.
As usual, Head Coach Tom Landry sent in the Dallas plays via his shuttling tight ends, Billy Truax and Mike Ditka. And as usual, Staubach had the option of changing the play at the line of scrimmage if he so wished. "I only called one audible all afternoon," he said. "They play a pretty standard defense and there was no need to make any changes at the line. We knew we couldn't throw long into their zone, so we looked for the short passes and ran inside."