The Eagles' eight-point defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1980 regular-season finale propelled the team to its first NFC Championship
There is nothing unusual about the Eagles closing out the regular season with a game against Dallas. It is happening this season and it happened seven other times over the years. But the first time it happened was in 1980 and it was a dramatic chapter in this storied NFC East rivalry.
The Eagles were leading the division with a 12-3 record but the Cowboys were just one game back at 11-4. Both clubs were assured playoff berths. The only question was which team would finish in first place and even that seemed like a lock.
All the Eagles had to do was not lose the final game by 25 or more points. Considering they had not allowed more than 24 points in any game all season it seemed like a sure thing.
The Cowboys downplayed their chances of stealing the division from the Eagles all week. Head coach Tom Landry said, “We aren’t even thinking about that.”
Privately, though, the Cowboys were planning to do exactly that. Landry drew up an aggressive game plan designed to seize an early lead and see how the Eagles responded to the pressure. The Eagles defeated the Cowboys, 17-10, in a taut affair at Veterans Stadium earlier in the season but this game would be played at Texas Stadium where the Eagles had won just once in nine tries.
“It was a weird game in the sense that we had that (25-point) cushion,” said Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. “Every other time we played Dallas it was do or die. It wasn’t like that for this game. The circumstances were just different.”
There also was a fear the Eagles had peaked too soon. They won 11 of their first 12 games but lost two of three down the stretch. Wilbert Montgomery, their leading rusher, missed several games and was limping on a sore knee. Defensive end Carl Hairston and linebacker Bill Bergey were playing through injuries. A team that appeared invincible early in the season was sputtering as it pulled into Dallas in Week 16.
The Cowboys came out firing and took a 21-0 lead on touchdowns by Danny White, Tony Hill, and Preston Pearson. The Eagles fought back with a touchdown by Louie Giammona, but the Cowboys answered with a scoring pass from White to Drew Pearson. The Eagles got a field goal from Tony Franklin but Dallas came back with White throwing his fourth touchdown pass, this one to tight end Billy Joe Dupree.
Jaworski recalls looking up at the Texas Stadium scoreboard and seeing Dallas 35, Eagles 10. It was the dreaded 25-point spread. The division title which once seemed so certain was slipping away.
“I kept staring at (the score) and thinking, ‘This can’t be happening. We can’t blow this,’” Jaworski said.
To make matters worse, the Eagles had lost their leading receiver Harold Carmichael. Dallas safety Dennis Thurman hit the 6-8 Carmichael and sent him flying into the Eagles’ bench. Carmichael injured his back on the play and left the game, ending his NFL-record streak of 127 consecutive games with at least one reception. For the Eagles, bad omens were everywhere.
“It was a real gut check,” Jaworski said. “We could have folded but we didn’t.”
Jaworski rallied the Eagles with three scoring drives, the first culminating with a touchdown pass to Rodney Parker, the second setting up a Franklin field goal, and the third ending with a Montgomery touchdown run. The Eagles lost the game, 35-27, but won the division.
It was the first time in NFL history that a team celebrated a defeat with Dom Perignon champagne in the locker room.
Running back Wilbert Montgomery's iconic 42-yard touchdown run in the 1980 NFC Championship Game (above) was made possible in part by Philadelphia's "win" in the regular-season finale.
Head coach Dick Vermeil offered a toast to owner Leonard Tose who was married in a private ceremony at the renowned restaurant Le Bec-Fin just two days earlier.
“To Mr. Tose and his new bride,” Vermeil said, “you are now a champion.”
Tose smiled and raised his glass.
“This is one helluva wedding present,” he said.
A few weeks later, the Eagles and Cowboys met again, this time for the NFC Championship. In the days leading up to the game, the Cowboys referenced the final game of the regular season and how it gave them an edge, even though the rematch would be at Veterans Stadium.
“If we have an advantage,” Landry said, “it is knowing we can win. And they know it, too.”
Landry added, “I’m sure Philadelphia wants to win this game very badly. This is their first championship game in 20 years. But very often the worse you want to win, the more you feel the pressure to win.”
It was Landry’s sly attempt to play mind games with the Eagles and their fans. It didn’t work, of course, because the Eagles defeated the Cowboys, 20-7, in the NFC title game. But when you consider how much home-field advantage meant in that game - the frigid weather, the Vet Stadium crowd - you realize how important it was for the Eagles to shave that 25-point margin to eight on the final week of the regular season.
Put that title game in Dallas and, well, who knows?
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.