The Dallas Cowboys appearing in the divisional round of the playoffs was as expected in early January as your desperate cousin looking for someone to kiss on New Year’s. Even with the 1978 rules which instituted Wild Card Weekend, the Cowboys had failed to make the divisional playoffs only once since their institution in 1970. On top of that, the Cowboys had only lost twice in the divisional playoffs, and oddly enough both of those encounters were at home against the Rams.
These weren’t the LA Rams. The visiting team in the 1981 divisional playoffs were the fledgling Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had only been to the playoffs once before in 1979 where they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles and lost in the conference title game to the LA Rams. Coach John McKay had gone from giving lovable loser soundbites to giving the NFC Central something to sweat. They had won four of their last five encounters to make the postseason. Doug Williams, completing his 4th season, was emerging as the division’s best quarterback. Tight end Jimmy Giles caught 45 passes for 786 yards and 6 touchdowns — enough to land him in the Pro Bowl. The Buccaneers offense also had potent threats like Kevin House and James Wilder.
In 1981, the Cowboys defense was treated to a pleasant surprise. Undrafted rookie Everson Walls led the NFL with 11 interceptions and helped opposite cornerback Dennis Thurman found “Thurman’s Thieves.” As usually, Doomsday, the Cowboys’ impressive front four, was led by Harvey Martin, John Dutton, Randy White, and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, a group that included a Hall of Famer and two others who ought to be in Canton. They pressured quarterbacks and shutdown runningbacks.
Doomsday made its presence known on the first play of the game. Ed “Too Tall” Jones sacked Doug Williams on the game’s opening drive. This was the first of four sacks Doomsday would get on the eventual Super Bowl XXII MVP. Doomsday would also pressure Williams into two intentional grounding penalties, thus making field position a luxury Tampa Bay did not have.
The first quarter bore no scoring fruits for the Cowboys. After all, they were facing a Buccaneers defense that was second in the league in takeaways and also talked the previous week about how confident they were against the Cowboys’ passing attack. However, the Cowboys glided down the field commandingly in the second quarter with a nine yard touchdown pass from Danny White to Tony Hill. Kicker Rafael Septien added three points of his own to give the Cowboys 10 total points in the second quarter. The Buccaneers were held scoreless, which was caused by their average starting position at their own 19 yard line. A 10-0 halftime lead for Dallas seemed rather low, but the Cowboys weren’t finished.
Turnovers were an issue for the Buccaneers. They lost the turnover battle 4-0. The Cowboys’ defense forced Williams into four interceptions. Dennis Thurman picked off Doug Williams twice, but it was Ed Jones’ interception and Michael Downs’ pick that helped lead to two touchdowns in the third quarter. All in all, the Cowboys scored 21 points in the third quarter from three different runningbacks. Ron Springs had a one-yard score, while Tony Dorsett and James Jones each rushed from five yards out.
Tampa Bay only advanced into Cowboys territory four times the entire game. In the second half, the Buccaneers only gained two yards rushing. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ ground attack featured five different ball carriers who gained 212 yards for the team. In the fourth quarter, Timmy Newsome ceremonially sealed the deal with a one yard touchdown run to give the Cowboys a 38-0 win and make John McKay want to “get the hell out of here.”
Danny White was boringly effective going 15 of 26 for 143 yards and a touchdown. Tony Dorsett gained 86 yards on 16 attempts and had a touchdown. Ron Springs trailed with 70 yards on 15 attempts and a touchdown. And the defense was stupendous with its four interceptions, four sacks, and a shutout. Tom Landry compared this performance to the notorious “Doomsday in the Dome” feat from Super Bowl XII.
In the scope of the 1981 divisional weekend, the match preceded the famed “Miracle in Miami” between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. That was the incredible game from the weekend that would last decades. The dominant performance against the Buccaneers was a great sendoff to the Bay Area for the Cowboys as the Giants fell to the upstart 49ers. They needed all the confidence they could get since the 49ers creamed them 45-14 in early in the season in San Fransisco. The Cowboys would be fortunate if the upcoming contest was close at all.