The Dallas Cowboys were already one of the NFL’s most consistent contenders, going back for over a decade. The Cowboys had a Super Bowl ring on their resume, from 1971 and a Super Bowl appearance as recently as 1975. In the 1977 NFL season, Dallas produced its best team yet, with a dominating run to head coach Tom Landry’s second championship.
The Cowboy running game got a needed injection of life with rookie Tony Dorsett. Fresh off of winning the Heisman Trophy and national championship at the University of Pittsburgh, Dorsett ripped off a 1,000-yard campaign to begin his Hall of Fame NFL career. Roger Staubach was 35-years-old at quarterback, but still delivering Pro Bowl performances. Drew Pearson was one of the league’s top wideouts. And the Dallas offense was second in the league for points scored.
Dallas didn’t rank quite as high defensively, clocking in at eighth. But they had the Defensive Player of the Year in end Harvey Martin. They had an All-Pro free safety in Cliff Harris. And before this season was over, the defense that would shine its brightest in the biggest moments.
The Cowboys opened the season with a 16-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings, who had won three of the previous four NFC titles. The top rival within the NFC East was the Washington Redskins. But while the Redskins had a tough defense, they struggled to score points. Dallas won one matchup easily, 34-16, and the other in a hard-fought 14-7 decision. By the time all was said and done, Dallas went 12-2 and were easily the NFC’s top team going into the playoffs.
Out west, the Los Angeles Rams had been knocking on the door for three straight years, losing in the NFC Championship Game each time. The Rams were tough on both sides of the ball, ranking in the top four both offensively and defensively.
The offense had young Pro Bowlers in quarterback Pat Haden, 1,200-yard rusher Lawrence McCutcheon and wide receiver Harold Jackson. The defense had a Pro Bowler at each level—Jack Youngblood and Larry Brooks up front, Isiah Robertson at linebacker and Monte Jackson on the corner. Los Angeles hammered Minnesota 35-3 on a Monday Night in October. It was the highlight of a 10-4 season that saw the Rams coast home in the NFC West and snag the 2-seed for the playoffs.
Minnesota was getting a little long in the tooth and their age on defense started to show. The unit called The Purple People Eaters had been one of the league’s best for several years, but they only ranked 13th this season. The Hall of Fame quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, was now 37-years-old. But they got needed juice from running back Chuck Foreman and wide receiver Sammy White and stayed competitive.
Unlike previous years, the Vikings had some competition in the NFC Central. Chicago’s all-time great running back, Walter Payton, had the season of his life. Payton rushed for over 1,800 yards. In a memorable showdown against Minnesota in November, Payton ran for 275 yards and carried the Bears to a 10-7 win.
Minnesota and Chicago came racing down the stretch for the division title, while also jousting with Washington for what was then a single wild-card playoff berth. All three teams reached the final week of the season with a record of 8-5. The Vikings held the tiebreaker for the division title, while the Bears held it for the wild-card. All three teams would play in separate time slots starting on Saturday afternoon.
The Redskins kept the pressure on with a 17-14 win over a Rams team that had nothing to play for. That night, the Vikings knocked off the Lions 30-21 and captured their seventh division title in eight years. The final playoff berth would come down to Chicago’s game the following afternoon against the New York Giants. The game became known as The Slush Bowl, with wet snow pounding the turf icy in the Meadowlands. A missed extra point by the Bears loomed large when the game went to overtime tied 9-9. But kicker Bob Thomas booted the game-winner in the closing seconds of OT. Chicago was going to the playoffs for the first time in the Super Bowl era.
The Oakland Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champions and they were plenty good again in 1977. The league’s most prolific offense was led by Pro Bowl veteran Ken Stabler. Dave Casper was the NFL’s best tight end. Cliff Branch was a game-breaking threat at wide receiver. The offensive line had all-time greats in Gene Upshaw and Art Still, paving the way for running backs Mark van Eeghen and Clarence Davis.
But there was a new challenger rising up in the AFC West. The Denver Broncos had been producing some pretty good teams in recent years, and now took the next step to become a bona fide contender. A defense that would become known as The Orange Crush produced four 1st-team All-Pro players in 1977. Lyle Alzado was at defensive end. The linebacking corps included Randy Gradishar and future ESPN analyst Tom Jackson. Bill Thompson was at strong safety.
The Broncos and Raiders were studies in contrast. Denver had a great defense, but just an above-average offense. Oakland had that great offense, but a middle-of-the-pack defense. What they both had in common was that they won a lot of football games.
Both teams beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, a perennial leader in the AFC and winners of the Super Bowl in 1974 and 1975. Denver beat a pretty good Cincinnati Bengals team 24-13 in October. Oakland knocked off the contending Houston Oilers, 34-29 in November. The Broncos beat one of the AFC’s top contenders in the Baltimore Colts, and then knocked off Houston themselves. The Raiders destroyed the Vikings, 35-13 in December.
The AFC West superpowers split their games with each other. The difference came in early December when Oakland dropped a tough 20-14 decision to the Rams. The Raiders were still 11-3 and going to the playoffs. But the Broncos, at 12-2, were division champs and the road to the Super Bowl was coming through Mile High Stadium.
The other two divisions, the East and Central, had three-team duels that went down to the final week. The dominance of Denver and Oakland meant there was no wild-card fallback left, so it was winner-take-all in these races.
Baltimore was led by running back Lydell Mitchell, who rolled up over 1,100 yards rushing and his 71 catches led Colt receivers. Mitchell’s versatility made up for a slip in production from quarterback Bert Jones, who was coming off an MVP year in 1976.
The New England Patriots, fresh off of a breakthrough playoff trip in ’76, got back into contention behind 1,000 yards rushing from Sam Cunningham and a terrific pass rusher in Tony McGee. And the Miami Dolphins, the AFC’s dominant team from 1971-73, were returning to contention after a brief step back. Dolphin quarterback Bob Griese was 1st-team All-Pro, as was his favorite target, wide receiver Nat Moore. Jim Langer was the league’s best center.
Statistically, Miami was the best of the three teams, ranking in the top five, both offensively and defensively. But the Colts pounded the Dolphins in October, 45-28. Baltimore pulled out a win over Pittsburgh in October. Miami lost tough games to Cincinnati in late November and then New England in December.
All three contenders were 9-4 coming to the finish line. The Colts and Patriots were going head-to-head. Baltimore held the tiebreaker on Miami, but Miami had it on New England. When the Dolphins finished their season on a Saturday night by beating up the Bills 31-14, it meant the Pats were eliminated. New England still came out ready to play and took a 21-3 lead on Baltimore in the finale. But Jones led a furious rally and the Colts pulled it out, 30-24. They had their third straight AFC East crown.
Pittsburgh’s legendary Steel Curtain defense had a down year in 1977, dropping to 17th in the league. The Steeler offense picked up the slack. Franco Harris was one of the league’s best running backs and Lynn Swann was a Pro Bowl wide receiver. They gave quarterback Terry Bradshaw enough weapons to produce the seventh-best offense in the NFL.
Even so, the decline of the defense left an open door in the AFC Central. Houston beat Pittsburgh in October 27-10. The Oilers wouldn’t be consistent enough to keep it going all year, but they were on the rise as a contender. Cincinnati, a contender and occasional playoff team in recent years, was the one who pushed Pittsburgh to the wall. The Bengals beat the Steelers 17-10 in the season’s penultimate game and took control of the division race.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were both 8-5, and the Bengals had the tiebreaker. But they also had to play the upstarts from Houston in the final week. The Oilers won 21-16. Given a reprieve, the Steelers pulled out a 10-9 win in San Diego and were going back to the playoffs.
The divisional round of the playoffs was scheduled to bracket Christmas Day, going on Saturday the 24th and Monday the 26th. It would begin and end with two of the more famous games this round of the postseason has seen.
Oakland and Baltimore played a wild game on Saturday afternoon in old Memorial Stadium. The Raiders got the better of play, but the Colts got touchdowns on defense and special teams. They led 31-28 late in the fourth quarter. Casper, nicknamed “The Ghost” after cartoon character Casper The Friendly Ghost, got open down the middle for a 42-yard reception that set up the tying field goal. The play would become known as “Ghost to the Post.”
We went to overtime…then to a second overtime. Finally, Stabler hit Casper one more time, a 10-yard touchdown pass that gave Oakland a 37-31 win.
On the far side of the divisional round schedule was Minnesota and Los Angeles. The Vikings had beaten the Rams for the NFC Championship in both 1974 and 1976. This was supposed to be the Rams’ turn. But the weather did not cooperate. The game would become known as The Mud Bowl, and this picture will give you all the evidence as to why. Minnesota was the team that managed to avoid turnovers and even with Tarkenton hurt, they won 14-7.
In between these two historic games, we had the upstarts—Denver and Chicago—trying to knock off the Old Guard—Pittsburgh and Dallas. The Broncos were successful. Bradshaw was picked off three times, twice by Jackson. Denver broke open a tie game in the fourth quarter and won 34-21. The Bears weren’t quite as successful—the Cowboy defense shut down Payton and Dallas’ own running game rolled up 233 yards on the ground. Dallas won 37-7.
Oddsmaker regard for Oakland was high, and even with the AFC Championship Game being played in Denver, the Raiders were a four-point favorite. The Broncos held a 7-3 lead into the third quarter when the game’s defining play happened. Denver running back Rob Lytle fumbled near the goal line and the ball was recovered by Oakland. But officials ruled that Lytle’s forward progress had been stopped.
Heated arguments ensued and Raider fans of a certain age remain bitter about the call to this day. Denver scored a touchdown on the next play and then held on to win 20-17.
There was no such drama in the early evening in Dallas. Tarkenton was still out and even the most diehard Minnesota fan would be hard-pressed to say that it mattered. The Cowboys jumped out to a quick 13-0 lead, forced four turnovers, ran for 170 yards and got back to the Super Bowl with a 23-6 win.
The city of New Orleans has become famous for hosting Super Bowls. 1977 wasn’t the first time the NFL went to the Big Easy, but the previous time had been in old Tulane Stadium. This year was the first time the game would be played in the Superdome.
It was a marquee stage, but there would be no drama as to the outcome. Dallas was peaking. They forced eight turnovers. The defense was so dominant that Harvey Martin and fellow lineman Randy White were named co-MVPs. Any doubt about the outcome was eliminated in the third quarter. Holding a 13-3 lead, Staubach went deep down the middle to Butch Johnson. The wide receiver stretched out and made a spectacular catch on the goal line. The game was effectively blown open and ended at 27-10.
Denver had arrived and they weren’t going away. But the 1977 NFL season was Dallas’ time.