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Memory Lane: Cowboys beat Rams in 1978 NFC Championship Game

The last time the Cowboys faced the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, they came away victorious in the 1978 NFC Championship Game

Yes, the Dallas Cowboys are facing the Los Angeles Rams for the first time in the playoffs since the 1985 NFC divisional playoffs when the Rams blanked them 20-0 at Anaheim Stadium. But therein lies the catch: Saturday's renewal of the playoff series won't be at Anaheim Stadium, but at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The last time Dallas played Los Angeles there in a playoff game was the 1978 NFC championship game, and the Cowboys shutout Los Angeles 28-0.

It was the seventh time in the conference title game's nine-year existence that Dallas would vie for a Super Bowl berth and the fourth time they would play the Rams in the postseason, second-most for Dallas at that time behind the Minnesota Vikings with five games.

"We played them in also in '75 season," said Roger Staubach, who played quarterback for the Cowboys from 1969-79. "So, we won two big games out there and we were underdogs both times. They were actually happy we came out there in '75 because they didn't want the Vikings to come out there.

"So, we had the Hail Mary pass that won the Viking game and then we come out and beat the Rams and then we get a chance to beat them again on the 28-0 season."

Earlier in 1978 during Week 3, the Rams beat Dallas 27-14 at the Coliseum. But that was Week 3 and that was also film on tape that the Cowboys' advanced scouting department could use to exploit Los Angeles' weaknesses and tune up any problems Dallas had in the first meeting.

"We definitely would address the problems that we had in the first time we met them," said former safety Charlie Waters, who played for Dallas from 1970-81. "That's just what you do as a coach. You have to get the players to recognize that, hey, if you just done this or play a technique the right way, you'd have been able to take care of this play. And that's how he addressed it."

It wasn't just the last meeting that the Cowboys had broken down; it was the last six meetings between the two teams.

"We would have them broken down categorically in each yardage by down," former safety Cliff Harris said. "So, we knew what plays were their primary plays that they ran consistently. Because we had their last six games we'd know exactly what to anticipate, and that's where we would design the defense to eliminate the play or the player."

What also helped the Cowboys out in their shutout in the '78 rematch was they had a half-man, half-monster, a "Manster," which was defensive end Harvey Martin's nickname for defensive tackle Randy White. The eventual Hall-of-Famer knocked out quarterback Pat Haden and running back John Cappelletti, each who were responsible for two touchdowns in the Week 3 meeting.

"I hit him and when he went to throw, as I hit, it broke his thumb," said White, a co-MVP with Martin in the previous season's Super Bowl. "And John Cappelletti earlier in the game, I tackled him, and it was on the sidelines, he came down on his shoulder and I dislocated his shoulder. So, I knocked both Haden and Cappelletti out of that game."

Haden produced 7-of-19 for 76 yards and three interceptions, a testament to the defensive line's intense pressure on the Rams signal caller.

"The biggest difference was the great equalizer with the home-field advantage they had was our defensive line without a doubt," said Waters, who finished the game with two interceptions, 0.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery. "They just could not do anything against us consistently, and especially the passing game. And Pat was only 5-11 and that is a problem. It's hard to see over the defensive line when you're 6-4. It was a detriment and he had had success up until the game against us."

What helped the Dallas pass rush was their full curtailment of the Rams' run game, limiting the home side to 31 carries for 81 yards.

Said White: "Going into the game, I'm sure that was our defensive philosophy on third downs was on first and second down to keep them on some kind of manageable third down down and distance, and that was probably something we were able to do that day that allowed us to pin our ears back because we put them in predictable passing situations.

"Instead of having them in second or third-and-3, third-and-2, third-and-4, we probably third-and-10, third-and-12, third-and-8. So, now, we lay our ears back and go after them. That can be a big difference in the team that wins and the team that doesn't."

Even though the final score would indicate Dallas averaged a touchdown per quarter, the reality was the game was a first-half struggle. It wasn't until the third quarter that things got going for the Cowboys when Waters recorded his first interception and returned it to the Los Angeles 10-yard line. Running back Tony Dorsett would later capitalize with a 5-yard score and a 7-0 lead.

Another interception from Waters would again flip the field position and allow the Cowboys offense to start inside the red zone. Staubach would find running back Scott Laidlaw for a 4-yard touchdown as part of an effort that yielded 13-of-25 for 126 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

Backup quarterback Vince Ferragamo, with a foreshadowing of the magical run he would go on in next year's postseason, led the Rams inside the Cowboys' red zone with under eight minutes in the game down 14-0. Dallas would recover a fumble on first-and-goal, and then turn around to go on an 89-yard touchdown drive with tight end Billy Joe DuPree catching an 11-yard score.

The Cowboys' final touchdown, and a play the encapsulated how the Dallas defense had dominated Los Angeles, was a 68-yard interception return from linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. 

"We had a good day that day," said White. "That's football. One day it's your turn and one day it's their turn. That's why people watch. All they guarantee is a boat ride. They don't guarantee any fish."

In another testament to just how dauntless the '78 Cowboys were in their quest to defend their Super Bowl XII win, Dallas accomplished all of it in their blue jerseys, which fans thought were bad luck, even though the club went 10-8 in them from 1970-80.

"I didn't understand that whole thing with the blue jerseys," White said. "I like the blue jerseys. I think I could care less what color jersey I wore. That had nothing to do with me winning or losing."

Waters concurred that it was more of a distraction ginned up from external sources.

Said Waters: "The fans and the opponents and the press made a much bigger deal about that than we did," Waters said. "We didn't feel like there was a jinx at all attached with the blue jerseys, but we sure heard an awful lot about it."

The Rams won't force Dallas to wear their blue jerseys, but they will try to force them into third-and-longs and shut down running back Ezekiel Elliott. Nonetheless, the current Cowboys have full support from the '78 team, the last to win a playoff game at the Coliseum.

"It's another football game between two great franchises," White said. "Obviously I'm a big Cowboys fan. I'm going to be rooting for the Cowboys to repeat whatever we did in 1978. I hope they repeat it and then some, and go to the NFC Championship and win and go to the Super Bowl and win that."

Staubach, who has seen some of the same leadership traits in current quarterback Dak Prescott, is a little nervous about the game because of how good the Rams are with running back Todd Gurley and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

"The Cowboys, they've fought hard for this whole second half of this year," Staubach said. "They're a good football team. So, I'm pulling for Dak and I'm really anxious to watch this game because the Rams are good too, but we're really a good football team."

What are your memories from the playoff rivalry between the Cowboys and Rams in the ‘70s and ‘80s? Share ‘em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane