The Cowboys and Buccaneers met in the playoffs after the 1981 and 1982 seasons. Both games were at Texas Stadium and resulted in Dallas victories, giving former Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams reason to despise the Cowboys long before he led their archrival in Washington to a Super Bowl title in January 1988.
Dallas’s front four of Harvey Martin, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, John Dutton and Randy White dominated the first playoff game between the Cowboys and Buccaneers on Jan. 2, 1982 — a 38-0 Dallas rout in the divisional round. “CLUNK!” read the headline in the St. Petersburg Times the following day.
“All we wanted to do was go after [Williams],” Martin said after Dallas sacked Williams four times and pressured him into two intentional grounding penalties.
Williams, who spent the first five years of his career with Tampa Bay, finished 10 for 29 for 187 yards and four interceptions.
“I was talking to [Cowboys cornerback] Dennis Thurman after the game, and he said he hasn’t seen them rush like that before,” Buccaneers tight end Jimmie Giles told reporters. “It was almost like they were possessed.”
“There’s no way anybody could have beaten Dallas today,” Williams, whose four interceptions came after he threw 14 picks in 16 regular season games, told The Washington Post’s David DuPree. “We didn’t have a chance, and I don’t know if any other team would have, either.”
“They just kicked the hell out of us, but I guess that’s the understatement of the year,” Buccaneers Coach John McKay said.
Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Dallas, which would go on to lose to San Francisco in an iconic NFC championship game, finished with almost as many rushing yards (212) as Tampa Bay had total yards (222).
“It is a game to remember,” Williams said of the defeat. “We got here. We are proud of that much. And from this game we can learn.”
The Buccaneers would get another shot at the Cowboys — and to demonstrate what they learned — a year later. After going 5-4 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, McKay’s squad traveled to Texas for a first-round game in the 16-team “Super Bowl Tournament.”
The “Duel in Dallas II,” as the Tampa Bay Times labeled the rematch, was more closely contested than the original. The outcome, a 30-17 Cowboys win, might have been different had Williams not injured his hamstring in an overtime win against the Chicago Bears the week before.
A hobbled Williams completed 8 of 28 passes for 113 yards and threw three interceptions against the Cowboys, but his 49-yard touchdown pass to Gordon Jones in the third quarter gave the Buccaneers a 17-16 lead.
The game turned with 13:30 remaining. With Tampa Bay clinging to its one-point advantage and backed up deep in its own territory, Williams dropped back to throw. He was looking for Giles over the middle, but his errant pass was intercepted by Monty Hunter, the Cowboys’ rookie third-string safety, who had just entered the game. Hunter returned the pick 19 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
“I think Williams tried to throw over my head,” Hunter said of the first and only interception of his two-year career. “When I first caught it, I didn’t have my balance. But then I could see the blue of the end zone, and I knew I could get in.”
Tampa Bay’s opportunistic defense had given it a chance. With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Cowboys quarterback Danny White, who had jammed his thumb in practice a few days before, had the ball slip out of his hands on a pass attempt. Tampa Bay linebacker Hugh Green plucked it out of the air and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown.
Dallas, which outgained Tampa Bay 456-218, rallied to retake the lead before halftime. White’s touchdown pass to running back Timmy Newsome with 3:33 to play sealed the Cowboys’ win.
“We haven’t had this much intensity all year, even counting the Washington game,” Dallas Coach Tom Landry said after his team snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 5-0 all-time against Tampa Bay. “There was nothing similar about the way we played this week and the past two weeks.”
After the game, McKay took the blame for starting Williams.
“If you don’t practice, you shouldn’t play,” McKay said. “That’s basically my fault. He took five snaps all week and shouldn’t have played.”
The Cowboys went on to lose to Washington in the NFC championship game. It would be 15 years before Tampa Bay returned to the playoffs. Williams signed with Washington in 1986 and went 1-2 against the Cowboys as a starter over the remainder of his career. On Jan. 31, 1988, he played the game of his life — and delivered one of the greatest Super Bowl performances ever — in a 42-10 win over the Denver Broncos.