On the Dallas sideline, safety Cliff Harris celebrated the only interception return for a touchdown in his 10-year career.
With 5:03 to play -- and Dallas leading by a touchdown -- RFK Stadium's 55,004 fans braced for another crushing loss. The mental wounds caused by Clint Longley's last-minute, game-winning pass last Thanksgiving were still fresh.
This game, it appeared, was over.
Kilmer, though, stood on the sidelines and vowed to script a happy ending.
''I got determined to take it down the field,'' he said.
He did. And it turned out the fun was just beginning. At least for the Redskins. Their fans soon witnessed one of the wildest, and weirdest, finishes in this rivalry's history:
A Kilmer-led touchdown; an overtime interception by ''Captain Comeback'' Roger Staubach; an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the usually cool Staubach and a Kilmer sneak for the winning score. The latter three rarely, if ever, occured.
And it was a game in which Washington led only twice -- 3-0 and 30-24, the final score. In between, the Redskins worked from behind. But Kilmer understood comebacks. He had crafted a career making them. In 1963, while playing for San Francisco, an auto accident nearly caused a foot to be amputated. He battled back, making a concession in his playing style, switching from a runner to a passer.
Four years later, New Orleans picked him in the expansion draft -- highly-thought of quarterbacks aren't left unprotected. And when the Redskins traded for the 31-year-old Kilmer in 1971 -- to be Sonny Jurgensen's backup -- Kilmer's career was close to the end.
But that, too, was only beginning.
He led Washington in passing for six of the next seven years and guided the Redskins to victory over Dallas in the 1972 NFC Championship Game. Kilmer's career changed dramatically as he wrestled away the hearts of some fans who swore by his good buddy Jurgensen. Every time it seemed Kilmer was relegated to the bench, something would happen to Jurgensen and in came ''Furnace Face.'' And good things happened.
In 1975, though, Kilmer was firmly in charge. Jurgensen had retired and coach George Allen didn't yet trust young Joe Theismann. Still, Kilmer had to prove he was capable as the Jurgensen safety net was yanked away.
''Everyone was going to be critical of me if I didn't throw well,'' said Kilmer, who would throw 23 touchdown passes that season, his Redskins high. ''I probably trained harder than I did in previous seasons to improve my throwing and work on my fundamentals. I had never been formally a quarterback in college [at UCLA] and I had to work on my drops and setting myself.
''No doubt about it [the pressure increased]. I'd better show I can throw the ball better than I ever had. Sonny wasn't there to be a backup and everyone said I couldn't throw.''
Resurrection was a Kilmer specialty. And a seven-point deficit was no trouble.
So with 5:03 remaining and the ball at Washington's 40-yard line, Kilmer, with more boos pounding his ears but not his confidence, spoke in the huddle: ''Give me some protection and we'll take it down the field.''
He got protection and the Redskins drove for the tie. A 24-yard pass to running back Mike Thomas moved the ball to the Dallas 21, followed by a 9-yard Thomas run on second down. Then, on fourth-and-2 from the 13, Thomas, after Kilmer called a time out, carried outside for six more. On the next play, Kilmer and tight end Jerry Smith hooked up for the touchdown with 1:52 left.
Kilmer later called this one of his most memorable drives, fitting for a game that provided a steep pile of memories.
Dallas moved to the Washington 22 with 13 seconds remaining -- thanks to four Staubach completions totalling 44 yards. But Toni Fritsch, who kicked a game-winner the previous week at Philadelphia, missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt to win the game.
Then came even more fun. At least for Washington.
The Cowboys won the toss and quickly penetrated Redskins' territory. Staubach connected with receiver Drew Pearson for 32 yards, giving Dallas a first down at the Washington 48 three plays into overtime.
On second-and-12 from midfield, Staubach dropped back to pass. Linebacker Chris Hanburger, Washington's defensive signal caller, did not order a blitz. But, because he spotted the tight end lining up wide, Hanburger raced through the middle untouched. He arrived just as Staubach released the ball and his hit caused the pass to flutter downfield.
Safety Ken Houston intercepted the pass at the Washington 34 and returned it to the 50. Houston received a thigh contusion on the tackle and was probably done for the day. The damage was already done.
''Ken was a smart player,'' Staubach said, ''and I probably shouldn't have thrown it. When he intercepted it, I just had a lump in my stomach.''
But the real action occured away from the ball. After Houston picked off the pass, Redskins cornerback Pat Fischer charged at Staubach.
''I must have run by their entire team to seek him out and block him,'' Fischer said. ''I knocked him down and it was insignificant to the return, but I took advantage of the opportunity. I'd never gotten to hit him and he'd insulted me so many times [by completing passes]. I was delighted.
''He got up and was upset.''
Just a little. Staubach had built a reputation as one of the league's classiest players. But he was also one of the most competitive. Not only was Staubach angered by the interception, he didn't like Fischer racing his way.
So, after the two bumped heads, Staubach elbowed Fischer, drawing a 15-yard penalty.
''He was coming to give me a dirty shot,'' Staubach recalled. ''And I saw him coming and threw him to the ground, then jumped on him.
''He got up and laughed.''
That penalty proved costly as Washington started its drive at the Dallas 35. After Kilmer gained three yards on first down, he went to the air.
A 9-yard pass to receiver Charley Taylor placed the ball at the 23. Then, on third-and-six from the 19, Kilmer again found Taylor, this time for eight yards.
Usually in such a situation, the Redskins would have run the ball, setting up the defensive-minded Allen's favorite score: the field goal. But kicker Mark Moseley had already missed from 29 and 45 yards.
''I got in the huddle and said, 'Look, we're going to score a touchdown because we're not going to let the field goal kicker miss another one,' '' Kilmer recalled. ''I was calling the plays. I know what George Allen wants me to run -- he'll want me to run a dive play, something to get the ball in the middle of the field. I knew George would jump out of his shoes. I wish he were alive today to tell you what he thought. I know he died when I came out throwing.''
Kilmer returned to the ground, however. Running backs Larry Brown and Mike Thomas combined for 10 yards to the 1. On first-and-goal, Kilmer tried something novel. He called for a sneak, his first of the season. It wasn't even in the playbook.
''I was in total shock that Billy Kilmer would sneak for a touchdown,'' said Dallas end Harvey Martin.
But he did. In the huddle, Kilmer told right guard Walt Sweeney, ''I'm coming over you.''
Center Len Hauss helped Sweeney block left tackle Jethro Pugh to create the opening.
''[Middle linebacker] Lee Roy Jordan kept looking at me [before the snap] and I kept looking at him,'' Kilmer remembered. ''At the last moment, he figured I was going to run a sneak. I took the ball and jumped, but when I jumped over, he hit me square in the jaw. He really got me.''
Jordan didn't stop him, though. Nor could anyone prevent the fans from swarming onto the field after the game-winning score with 6:34 left in overtime, ending one of the most exciting finishes in this rivalry. If it didn't top Longley's heroic heave the year before, it certainly came close.
While the fans cheered Kilmer in the end, they booed him much of the day. He finished with three touchdowns and 301 yards passing, his first 300-yard game since his second game with the Redskins in 1971. But he was picked off four times.
Kilmer admitted the last one, intercepted by Harris for the score, was a bad throw. Harris had fooled him into the toss. When Dallas blitzed, rather than stick tight on the receiver -- in this case Brown -- Harris laid off, hoping for an interception attempt.
''[Dallas coach Tom] Landry would get mad at me all the time for that,'' Harris said. ''Sure enough, it worked this time. I read it and then started running at Billy. And I remember telling him, 'Billy, you don't want to tackle me.' ''
Such big plays in this game weren't limited to the last few minutes of regulation and overtime. And the seven-point fourth-quarter lead wasn't Dallas' largest.
Washington contributed to its deficit with sloppy play. Kilmer's second interception, and the first of Harris' two pickoffs, led to a 10-yard Staubach to Pearson touchdown pass and a 14-3 lead.
Earlier a Thomas fumble, recovered by cornerback Mark Washington, had set up another score as Staubach hit running back Preston Pearson from 12 yards out.
The Redskins recovered with Kilmer's 46-yard toss to receiver Frank Grant, making the score 14-10. But, following Fritsch's 33-yard field goal, Dallas positioned itself for a crushing blow with 32 seconds left in the first half.
The Cowboys were on the Redskins' 3 when Staubach attempted to pass. But Redskins end Ron McDole saved the day, and, perhaps the game. He bulled past tackle Rayfield Wright on the inside and slapped the ball out of Staubach's hands. McDole recovered and was tackled 15 yards later.
''I didn't realize just how big a play it was until after the game,'' McDole said. ''When the game was going on, George just expected you to make plays like that.''
Much to Staubach's, and Dallas', chagrin.
''That could have put the game away,'' Staubach said.
Instead, it left the door ajar for Washington, which finally tied the score in the third on a leaping 2-yard catch by Taylor. That set up the fourth-quarter and overtime drama.
While the Redskins rallied on this day, the Cowboys had a knack for comebacks as well. Theirs started after this game, which left them in a three-way tie for first with 5-2 Washington and St. Louis. Dallas earned a wild-card berth with a 10-4 record, helped by a 31-10 thumping of Washington in the rematch.
Success followed in the playoffs. In the first round, Dallas beat Minnesota, 17-14, on Staubach's 50-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Drew Pearson. After crushing the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game, Dallas lost to Pittsburgh, 21-17, in the Super Bowl. Certainly the Cowboys' season wasn't ruined by the overtime loss at RFK.
And, with a young defensive line of Martin (third year), end Ed ''Too Tall'' Jones (second) and tackle Randy White (first), their future remained solid.
Meanwhile, the Redskins finished 8-6 and out of the playoffs. But they provided a lasting memory Nov. 2.
''For a bunch of old guys, over the hill,'' a hoarse Allen said after the game, ''they looked pretty good in the fourth quarter. We beat those young whippersnappers.''