Saturday, Dec. 19, Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands, East Rutherford, N.J. Weather—clear, winds 15 to 23 mph, temperature 25°, wind chill 5°.
The Dallas Cowboys are first out, prancing in their new blue uniforms, cringing a little as the cruel wind takes its first bite. The Danville (Pa.) High School Band strikes up the Russian song Meadowlands, and one of the strangest and most dramatic sports weekends in Greater New York history begins.
It is a weekend that will end 28 hours later when the Jets win a ball game to guarantee themselves a playoff spot and the Giants do the celebrating; when the Jets' 28-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers is punctuated by the loud popping of champagne corks, not in the Shea Stadium locker room but in the Giants' Press Box Lounge in the Meadowlands 20 miles to the west. Forty or so members of the Giants' squad, plus club officials, wives, children, friends and assorted ornaments had gathered to watch the Jets on TV and cheer them on. The Giants had beaten the Cowboys 13-10 in a vicious and at times inspirational game that ended with Ray Perkins, the coach, carrying Joe Danelo, the kicker whose field goal won it in overtime, off the field on his shoulders. But they were only halfway home. The Jets had to knock the Packers out of the playoff picture for the Giants, or it would be no football for them for Christmas.
So now, arm in arm, the Jets and Giants come marching into the playoffs. When's the last time both the New York area teams were playoff-bound? Never. When's the last time both of them had a winning record in the same year? Never.
"We didn't help the Giants; the Giants helped the Giants," Jet Linebacker Greg Buttle said. "First they had to beat Dallas, and that isn't exactly easy."
The Giants started cranking up for the Dallas game early. When they trooped into their locker room the week before, after beating St. Louis 20-10, they found a message chalked on the blackboard: WHAT YOU'VE NEVER HAD AND CAN'T HAVE, YOU'LL NEVER MISS. BUT WHAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR GRASP AND SQUANDER, YOU'LL TRULY MISS!! SIGNED, A COUPLE OF VETERANS WHO'VE NEVER BEEN. The veterans who'd never been were defensive players, linebackers Brian Kelley and Brad Van Pelt. The defense had been carrying the Giants in the four games since they had lost Quarterback Phil Simms with a shoulder separation. Their offense was shaky, averaging 2½ turnovers and 15 points per game, but the defense gave up only 11 a game, and the Giants won three of the four to give them an 8-7 record and a shot at their first trip to the playoffs in 18 years.
Perkins wasn't worried about his defense against Dallas. As one Giant defender said, "When you hit the Cowboys early, and keep hitting them, they'll lose interest—particularly if it's a game they're not totally committed to." And what was there to get the Cowboys up for this one? What could Coach Tom Landry say to inspire them? O.K., fellas, let's win it so we can get the home-field advantage in the NFC championship game three weeks from now—if the 49ers lose to New Orleans, that is. Too complicated.
Last year the Giants beat Dallas on Nov. 9 with a wide-open offense that was good for 38 points and 462 yards, but this time Perkins was going to be more basic. He would start off with three wide receivers, one of them a flexed, or spread, tight end; he would run at the Cowboys from that. Spreading the tight end would get Cowboy Strong Safety Charlie Waters out wide, where he couldn't crack in and jam the running, for which he is noted. The pass patterns would be mostly quick stuff over the middle.
Perkins' game plan was perfect except for one thing. It didn't take into account missed field goals. Danelo blew three short ones in the first quarter, a line-drive 21-yarder that sailed wide, then a 32-yarder, which was called back when the Cowboys jumped offside, then the 27-yarder that followed. Coming in, Danelo had been 12 for 12 from 33 yards and in.
"I kind of lunged at the first one," said Danelo, whose 35-yarder in overtime made him the game's hero—sort of. "I thought, 'What am I doing out here? My son can kick a 21-yard field goal.' On the second one Too Tall Jones was in my face. I tried to tap the third one and it went wide. I was thinking, 'Lord, just give me a chance to redeem myself.' "
The Giants finally broke a scoreless tie in the third quarter on a 20-yard pass from Quarterback Scott Brunner to Tight End Tom Mullady. The P.A. blared Willie Nelson's Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. In the owners' box, President Wellington Mara groaned, "Don't make them mad!"
The Cowboys went up 10-7 in the fourth quarter. Then, with 2½ minutes to go, Dallas' Drew Pearson caught a 23-yard pass, out to the Cowboys' 45 for a Dallas first down, and after the play was over he held the ball high in the air. Giant Cornerback Terry Jackson knocked it out of his hand.
"An official came over to me and said, 'Don't you ever do that again!' " Jackson said. "Drew was showing us they had the game wrapped up. I was showing him we were still in it." On the next play Tony Dorsett fumbled. The Giants drove and Danelo kicked a 40-yarder into the wind with 25 seconds to play to send the game into overtime. Dorsett fumbled again in the extra period, and the Giants drove again, but Danelo missed a 33-yarder. The Cowboys had one more turnover left in them, though, a Danny White pass that was intercepted by rookie Linebacker Byron Hunt, and this time Danelo's kick was good.
"I was sitting in the stands, and I saw them carrying Joe off the field," said Lovey Young, the wife of the Giants' general manager, George Young. "Then I looked again and I said, 'I don't believe this; that's Ray Perkins carrying him off.' "
In the locker room the Giants were looking ahead. The Jets still had to do it for them. "I just hope their kicker, Pat Leahy, doesn't go through what I went through today," Danelo said. "God love you, Pat. Be strong."
That evening Jackson phoned Jet Halfback Bruce Harper in the Jets' hotel, the Holiday Inn in Westbury on Long Island. "He told me, 'If you can stop [Packer Quarterback] Lynn Dickey from throwing in rhythm, you'll stop their offense,' " Harper said. "I said, 'Tell the other guys. I play offense.' Then I said, 'If we beat them you owe me and my girl a steak dinner.' Or at least I meant to say that."
Sunday broke cold and clear, too; 26°, swirling, 15-mph Shea Stadium winds of the kind that have broken the most talented of NFL passers, a wind chill of -3°. The Packer offense was introduced. John Jefferson ran out and greeted his pass-catching teammate, James Lofton, with an acrobatic high-five. "We were in the tunnel waiting to be introduced," said the Jets' left cornerback, Jesse Johnson, a third-string safetyman who had gotten the starting spot when the first three cornermen went down with injuries. "I heard the crowd yell. I'd seen those Packer high-fives in the films. I was thinking, 'Not today, not here in Shea Stadium. No trophies for you today.' "
The Jet defense was introduced. Marty Lyons, the tackle, tried to high-five it and missed. So did Mark Gastineau, the end. They were falling all over each other. "I was afraid they'd hurt themselves," said Randy Rasmussen, the 15-year guard.
The game was over very quickly. The Jets got all the points they needed in the first 2½ minutes when a Packer punt was botched and the Jets took over on the Green Bay 11 and punched the ball in on three shots. The Packer offensive line, crippled by the loss of Left Guard Derrel Gofourth, lost Left Tackle Mark Koncar after the first series, and Dickey was left to the mercy of the Jets' front four, the feared New York Sack Exchange, which had already broken the club record for sacks. Dickey was dumped nine times and the Jets ended their season with 66 sacks, one under the league record. When Dickey was allowed to throw, he couldn't get his timing down with Jefferson and Lofton. The Jet coverage got on them early, knocked them out of their patterns, and Dickey's throws were nosing and diving in the wind. He threw eight passes to Jefferson, but completed only two, for 39 yards. Eleven went to Lofton; two were completed for 27 yards. Between them Jefferson and Lofton dropped five balls.
In the Lounge at Giants Stadium the atmosphere gradually loosened up as a Jet victory became more certain. "They had a buffet set up for us; the bar stayed open the whole time," Free Safety Beasley Reece said. "Kids were running around all over the place. Everyone was trying to play it loose, pretending to eat and not show too much concern, but I can assure you that all eyes were glued to that TV set. When [Jet Quarterback] Richard Todd got intercepted early you could feel a chill come over the room.
"Someone got a plate of food for me, but until the Jets went ahead 28-3, I couldn't tell if it was roast beef or cole slaw that I was eating. That's how tight I was."
The Jets' management had invited Young to be their guest at the game. He declined. "I felt my place was with our own group," he said. "We would all live or die together. I didn't begin to relax until the Jets were up 21-3 at the half. The Packers beat us twice. No one in our place takes them lightly. I was watching to see how much penetration the Jets' defensive line was getting. They were getting a lot on the inside. That was good. I knew Gofourth was out and that was going to hurt Green Bay. Then when Marty Lyons got an early sack I knew the Packers were going to have problems."
In his house in Upper Saddle River, N.J., Giant Punter Dave Jennings got a fire going and settled down in front of the TV set.
"I wanted to watch the game by myself," he said, "without getting all caught up in the excitement. I'm glad it wasn't thrilling. I wasn't ready for two in a row like that. You don't know how many years I've gone home and watched the first round of the playoffs on TV and been sick to my stomach. In the fourth quarter, when the game was in the bag for the Jets, I started balancing my checkbook. When it was over I let out a yell, a small one."
The hero of the Jets' locker room was All-Pro Defensive End Joe Klecko. He came out of the trainer's room on crutches, with his left ankle in a cast. He was asked whether he'd be ready for the wildcard playoff against Buffalo in Shea this week. "There's no way they'll keep me out of it," he said.
He'd gotten his ankle kicked on the first series, and he went into the clubhouse for X rays. They were negative. He thinks there was some ligament damage. "I'm not really sure," he said. "I was running around looking for different tape jobs until I got one that worked. There was no broken stuff, no torn stuff, so I went back out." He ended up with 2½ sacks, which gave him a Jet record 20½ for the season.
"We're a big, grown-up football team now," Klecko said.
The Jets had begun their season by losing three straight, and everyone was wondering who the next coach would be. Now Walt Michaels is coaching the first Jet playoff team since 1969. "They've got a damn good chance of going to the Super Bowl," Giant Center Jim Clack said. "Wouldn't it be funny if they found us there?"
"We live with each other's successes and failures," Reece said. "I guess after this weekend, we'll always be a part of each other."