When you look at the 1977 Dallas Cowboys season you might think that it was the offense that carried them on the way to a Super Bowl win. The Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in scoring, while being 8th in defense. The Dallas offense had first-team All-Pros in wide receiver Drew Pearson and tight end Billy Jo Dupree. They drafted Heisman winner Tony Dorsett, and 35-year-old Roger Staubach was still steady at quarterback.
But it was the defense that owned every key moment of the Dallas season. They were anchored up front by end Harvey Martin, who would win Defensive Player of the Year. Other All-Pros included tackle Randy White and safeties Charley Waters and Cliff Harris. The defense keyed a Week 1 road win over the Minnesota Vikings, the defending NFC champ. The Cowboys intercepted Fran Tarkenton three times and won 16-10 in overtime. It was the start of an 8-0 start and a 12-2 regular season.
The Chicago Bears had never made the playoffs in the Super Bowl era and with a 3-5 start, it didn’t look like anything would change. But they’d played well in splitting consecutive games against traditional NFC powers in the Rams and Vikings. Walter Payton ran for over 120 yards both times. Then Payton carried the Bears to wins in their final six games. The future Hall of Fame running back ran for over 1,800 yards, nearly a third better than the closest player, and he won the MVP, while lifting his team to the playoffs.
Chicago’s magic ride got a dose of reality when the Cowboys shut down Payton, got three interceptions from Waters and rolled to a 37-7 win. The Dallas defense did the same to Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game, locking down Chuck Foreman, recovering three fumbles and winning 23-6.
It was a year of change in the AFC. Denver burst onto the scene thanks their own defense, known as “Orange Crush.” They had four first-team All-Pros, including future ESPN analyst Tom Jackson at linebacker. Denver went 12-2, but would have to back it up in the playoffs by going through the AFC establishment, then the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders.
The Steelers were not a great team and when they lost at Cincinnati in Week 13, it looked like their run in the AFC Central was over. But Cincinnati lost in Houston the next week and Pittsburgh’s win in San Diego gave them the division title at 9-5. They hung with Denver into the fourth quarter of their playoff game, but Terry Bradshaw threw three interceptions and the Broncos scored 13 late points and won 34-21.
Oakland was almost as good as last year’s Super Bowl champ, with the league’ s best offense. They’d gone 11-3 and split their two games with Denver. The Broncos got a key break in the AFC Championship Game. Leading 7-3, it appeared running back Rob Lytle fumbled on the goal line and Oakland recovered. The call was missed, the Broncos scored and they had enough of a margin to ward off two fourth quarter touchdown passes from Ken Stabler to Dave Casper. Denver won 20-17.
Dallas and Denver met in New Orleans and the Cowboy defense ended the year just as they’d begun. They forced eight turnovers, Martin and White were named co-MVPs and when wide receiver Butch Johnson laid out in the end zone for a spectacular 45-yard-touchdown reception, the Cowboys had a 20-3 lead in the third quarter and won 27-10. There was no doubt who the best team in the NFL was.