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Cowboys Pull a Houdini

Pro football: Eagles botch game-winning field goal as Dallas escapes with 21-20 victory.

September 16, 1997|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVING, Texas — Merry Christmas, Dallas, if your team is still playing into the new year you can probably look back on this amazing sweltering Monday night in September as a telling sign of what was meant to be.

The Cowboys (2-1), four seconds away from having two fewer wins than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three games into the season and being besieged by suggestions they had become just another decaying dynasty, were blessed by one of the most bizarre finishes in NFL memory and a 21-20 victory.

The Philadelphia Eagles (1-2), moving from their own 11-yard line to the Dallas four after falling behind, 21-20, with 51 seconds to play, were poised to run off with a victory as former Cowboy kicker Chris Boniol positioned himself for a 22-yard field goal.

"I thought it was over," said Dallas tight end Eric Bjornson. "I didn't even watch; never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be a mishap like that . . . I just feel so lucky right now."

The snap from center to Philadelphia holder and punter Tom Hutton slipped sideways in Hutton's hands, causing Boniol to put on the brakes as he began to move into the ball. Hutton regained a grip on the ball and placed it in position for Boniol, but the Eagles' kicker looked as if he had stubbed his toe into the artificial turf, prompting Hutton to take off running.

"I stared the ball down," said Cowboys' guard Nate Newton, "and all of a sudden his foot froze up."

Blame it on the 95-degree sweaty conditions or credit the football gods with being longtime Cowboy fans, but Hutton then just dropped the ball, the Cowboys falling on it to end the game.

All Hutton had to do was catch the ball, and place it down for Boniol.

"It's nobody's fault but my mine," said Hutton.

"For me, it was money in the bank from there," said Boniol. "I'm still in shock."

Winning a game that Coach Barry Switzer had labeled a "must win" beforehand, the Cowboys are now tied with Washington for the NFC East lead and have an open date next week.

"It's just a chip-shot field goal," Switzer said. "I couldn't believe what happened. The next thing I knew I was running onto the field and jumping on Tony Casillas in a pileup."

Philadelphia, 10-9 winners over Green Bay a week ago, were on the threshold of upending the Cowboys, a team that no longer appears capable of scoring touchdowns.

"This is the most frustrating loss of my career," said Philadelphia Coach Ray Rhodes. "Of course the guys are devastated. We really thought we were going to win this game."

The Eagles had a 20-9 lead in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter and forced Dallas to settle for Richie Cunningham's fourth and fifth field goals to maintain a 20-15 advantage with 5:26 to play.

But Philadelphia could not run out the clock, losing the ball after going nowhere on three downs and being forced to punt. With 2:56 to play, Dallas took control at its own 38-yard line, and just maybe the whole season was on the line.

Stuck at his own 43-yard line on fourth and five, the heavens once again graced the Cowboys with officials overlooking a tipped Troy Aikman pass and calling pass interference on Eagle cornerback Charles Dimry.

"That pass interference play kept their final drive alive; I tipped the ball," said Philadelphia defensive lineman Mike Mamula. "The game should have been over at that point."

Instead, the Cowboys had a first down at the Eagles' 44-yard line, and Aikman went to Emmitt Smith for three yards, down the middle to a diving Bjornson for 24 and then three more yards to Deion Sanders to set the stage for the first in a series of thrilling last-minute plays.

Chased from the pocket and rolling left, Aikman threw the ball to the end zone--through the upraised hands of Philadelphia safety Tom Watson--into the waiting clutches of receiver Anthony Miller for a 14-yard touchdown. And yet there remained 51 seconds.

Starting from the Eagles' 11 after a penalty, Ty Detmer completed a 26-yard pass to Freddie Solomon, a 13-yarder to Michael Timpson, and then with 16 seconds remaining, a scrambling Detmer appeared to cross the line of scrimmage while throwing another pass to Solomon, who had broken free across the middle.

Solomon, now racing the clock and the Cowboys' defense, was stopped four yards shy of the end zone with four seconds remaining. The Eagles used their final timeout, and sent out Boniol.

"I've played a lot of games in high school, college and 15 years in the NFL, so I can tell you that until the last second ticks off the clock, the game isn't over and anything can happen," said Dallas' Bill Bates. "Maybe the football gods were looking after us tonight."

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