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It now has become perfectly clear why the Cowboys are known as " America's Team." Dallas, you see, simply doesn't want to be mentioned in the same breath with these 1979 Cowboys, not after the way they lost the championship of the Lone Star State to the Houston Oilers—Texas' Team—on Thanksgiving Day.
For more than a decade, braininess set the Cowboys apart from the NFL masses—and particularly the Oilers. No problem could withstand Tom Landry's computer, Gil Brandt's draft or the Cowboy mystique. Meanwhile, brainlessness kept the Oilers fogbound somewhere near Galveston. No problem was unfamiliar to Houston owner Bud Adams, mainly because he helped create most of them, or to his succession of head coaches, one of whom once announced, "This team is not going to take defeat standing up!"
Dallas went to five Super Bowls, and Cowboy fans carried their noses in the air. Houston went nowhere, finishing 1-13 in successive seasons, and Oiler fans hung their heads in shame. But last week at Texas Stadium it was the Cowboys who played like dunces and the Oilers who played like a team bound for the Super Bowl.
This is the season in which Dallas keeps forgetting that you are supposed to play the game with 11 men on the field. Not 10, as the Cowboys tried to do during a key play in their loss to the Washington Redskins two weeks ago. And definitely not 12, as they tried to do against the Oilers. That extra man proved fatal as Houston, instead of losing possession on a punt, turned the penalty against the Cowboys into a first down and then promptly scored on a 32-yard pass from Dan Pastorini to Ken Burrough to win the game 30-24.
For the Oilers it was their fifth straight victory—their longest winning streak since 1962—and with a 10-3 record they share the AFC Central lead with Pittsburgh, which beat Cleveland 33-30 Sunday on Matt Bahr's overtime field goal at Three Rivers Stadium.
In shocking contrast, America's Team has lost three straight—its longest losing streak since 1974—and four of its last five. Worse still, the Cowboys have slipped to an 8-5 record and trail Philadelphia by one game in the race for the NFC East championship, which the Cowboys have won six times in the 1970s. Landry's once-proud "Son of Doomsday" defense—now minus mouthy Linebacker Thomas ( Hollywood) Henderson, who was canned by Landry a few days before the Houston game—has given up 95 points in the last three games, and the Cowboys have been outscored 123-84 in the last five.
If there is one simple reason for this Texas turnaround, it is that Houston has overcome most of its difficulties through patience, poise, shrewd drafting and sharp trading, while Dallas has acquired new problems on top of the old, unresolved ones. Another plus for the Oilers is the present healthy state of Pastorini.
The quarterback could not throw a football 10 yards in April or with any "zing" in September, but now he has almost fully recovered from an ailing right arm and has completed 27 of his last 44 pass attempts (61 %) for 553 yards and five TDs. Over that span he had but a single interception. As a result, the Oiler offense, which had relied almost entirely on the running of Earl Campbell, is now a complete strike force.
"I really don't know exactly what it was," Pastorini says of his arm trouble, "but it scared the hell out of me. As I understand it, it was a viral infection of the nerve. My mobility was restricted, and still is somewhat, but not to the point where I can't overcome it with the rest of the muscles in my arm. I'd say I'm about 98% right now."
As welcome as Pastorini's rejuvenation is to the Oilers, Campbell remains the main weapon. Assigned a staggering workload while the quarterback regained passing strength, Campbell has carried the ball more often (297 times in 13 games), endured more tackles and punished more defenders than any other back in the NFL. After Campbell had hammered the Dallas defense for 195 yards, his best output of the season, and had scored on 61- and 27-yard runs, Cowboy Lineman Larry Cole said, "You can get a handle on Campbell, but the handle keeps breaking. It's amazing. You get your shoulder into his hip, and it seems like that hip is giving you a forearm."