A rivalry that has been largely stale in recent years was once heated and bitter. Former Redskins coach George Allen stoked the fire, and players like Harvey Martin of the Cowboys and Diron Talbert and Dexter Manley of the Redskins kept it going.
The Redskins (9-6) haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 while the Cowboys (8-7) last made it to the postseason in 2009. For two teams that have a total of 13 Super Bowl appearances but none since 1995, Sunday’s prime-time matchup may mark a return to one of the best rivalries in sports.
Redskins Pro Bowl rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has revitalized the Redskins, leading them from a 3-6 record to the brink of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will try to silence his critics and win a critical game.
Three games stand out more than the others in the rivalry for their intensity, importance, and impact on the fortunes of the two teams.
NFC Championship Game, December 31, 1972: Redskins 26, Cowboys 3
Billy Kilmer threw two touchdown passes to Charley Taylor, who had 146 yards receiving, as the Redskins routed the Cowboys at RFK Stadium. The Redskins held Roger Staubach to 98 yards passing in one of the most one-sided games in the rivalry. The Redskins earned their first trip to the Super Bowl where they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, 14-7.
Like the 1982 NFC Championship Game, this game was a turning point of sorts. In 1972, the Cowboys were the defending Super Bowl champions while the Redskins were in the playoffs for the second time in a row after a 25-year absence. The Redskins would make the playoffs five times in six seasons from 1971 to 1976 under coach George Allen.
December 16, 1979: Cowboys 35, Redskins 34
A win against the hated Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium in the last game of the regular season would have put the Redskins in the playoffs for the first time since 1976. A loss? That would be hard to take. The way it happened was utterly devastating. It was the worst regular season loss in Redskins history.
Joe Theismann and John Riggins were in their prime. Theismann ran for a touchdown and threw for another. Riggins rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yard score that put the Redskins up 34-21 with 6:34 to go. Somehow, Dallas came back, with touchdown passes from Roger Staubach to Ron Springs and Tony Hill in the final 2:20.
The Cowboys had ripped the hearts out of the Redskins. After the game, Harvey Martin threw a funeral wreath into the Redskins locker room. Riggins quit football for a year. And the 10-6 Redskins missed out on the playoffs by point differential. The Chicago Bears needed to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals by more than 33 in their final game to get the final playoff spot in the NFC. The Bears won, 42-6, knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.
NFC Championship Game, January 23, 1983: Redskins 31, Cowboys 17
Dallas had won six straight NFC East titles before the 1982 season. Washington hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1976. The RFK Stadium crowd was electric. The bleachers were bouncing up and down. John Riggins ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley knocked Cowboys quarterback Danny White out of the game with a sack at the end of the first half. White’s replacement, Gary Hogeboom, threw a fourth quarter pass that Manley tipped and defensive tackle Darryl Grant intercepted and ran into the end zone. The game was a turning point for both franchises.
The game marked the fifth time in six years the Cowboys appeared in the NFC Championship game. They wouldn’t make it back for 10 more years. The Redskins went to four Super Bowls in the next decade, winning three, including Super Bowl XVII 27-17 over Miami in January of 1983.
Other great Redskins-Cowboys games
It’s not easy to pick the best games from the rivalry, with more than five decades from which to choose. But below are summaries of some of the most dramatic games, best comebacks, or those with the most on the line.
September 16, 1962: Redskins 35, Cowboys 35
This game was notable because it was the debut of Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, who scored three touchdowns for the Redskins.
November 28, 1965: Redskins 34, Cowboys 31
The Redskins overcame a 21-0 deficit behind three touchdown passes and 411 yards passing from quarterback Sonny Jurgensen.
October 8, 1973: Redskins 14, Cowboys 7
The Redskins scored both of their touchdowns in the final four minutes, and Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston made a spectacular, iconic game-saving tackle of Walt Garrison to save the game on Monday Night Football.
November 28, 1974: Cowboys 24, Redskins 23
Cowboys backup quarterback Clint Longley replaced an injured Roger Staubach and threw two touchdown passes as Dallas overcame a 16-3 deficit to beat the Redskins on Thanksgiving.
December 13, 1975: Cowboys 31, Redskins 10
Roger Staubach threw two touchdowns are ran for a third as the Redskins failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1970.
October 2, 1978: Redskins 9, Cowboys 5
With President Carter in attendance, the noise deafening, and the RFK Stadium bleachers rocking up and down, Mark Moseley kicked three field goals as the Redskins upset the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
September 5, 1983: Cowboys 31, Redskins 30
Dallas came back from a 23-3 halftime deficit and scored 28 unanswered points to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Redskins on Monday Night Football. Danny White threw three touchdown passes and ran for a third. The Redskins went 14-1 the rest of the regular season and set an NFL record for most points scored.
December 9, 1984: Redskins 30, Cowboys 28
The Redskins overcame a 21-6 deficit and John Riggins scored the winning touchdown as Washington qualified for the playoffs and Dallas didn’t.
November 5, 1989: Cowboys 13, Redskins 3
The Cowboys got their only win of the season as they held the Redskins to 50 yards rushing and upset Washington. The Redskins finished 10-6 but ended up one game out of the final wild-card spot.
November 24, 1991: Cowboys 24, Redskins 21
The upstart Cowboys defeated the 11-0 Redskins in a game that helped launch the Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins in the next four seasons. The 1991 Redskins, one of the greatest teams of all-time, would go on to win the Super Bowl against Buffalo.
December 13, 1992: Redskins 20, Cowboys 17
In a tense, hard-fought battle, the Redskins prevailed as safety Danny Copeland recovered a fumble in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. The game was critical as Washington made the playoffs by one game a year after winning Super Bowl XXVI over Buffalo. Dallas went on to win Super Bowl XXVII over the Bills.
October 1, 1995: Redskins 27, Dallas 23
The Redskins upset the Cowboys behind 121 yards rushing from Terry Allen. The Cowboys would go on to win their third Super Bowl in four years after the 1995 season.
December 3, 1995: Redskins 24, Cowboys 17
The Redskins won only six games in 1995, but two of them came against the Cowboys. The 17-point underdog Redskins won with Heath Shuler at quarterback. It was one of the few wins of Shuler’s career.
September 12, 1999: Cowboys 41, Redskins 35
The Cowboys scored 27 unanswered points after the Redskins led 35-14. Troy Aikman threw a 76-yard touchdown to Rocket Ismail in overtime for the win.
September 19, 2005: Redskins 14, Cowboys 13
The Redskins shocked the Cowboys with touchdown passes of 39 and 70 yards from Mark Brunell to Cowboy killer Santana Moss with less than four minutes to go. The Redskins went on to secure the final wild-card berth in the NFC, while Dallas missed the playoffs by one game.
December 18, 2005: Redskins 35, Dallas 7
In a game critical to both teams, the Redskins stomped Dallas behind three touchdown receptions by Chris Cooley to sweep the season series. Washington went on to make the playoffs while Dallas stayed home.
November 22, 2012: Redskins 38, Cowboys 31
With the Redskins’ season on the line at 4-6, Robert Griffin III threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns on Thanksgiving. The Redskins withstood a furious comeback by the Cowboys, who trailed 28-3 at the half.