So, anyway, there's this cowboy. Only, he isn't wearing that cattle-drive coat he wears into dusty American Express saloons. He's in a nice tweed jacket, and he has a hat with a little feather in it, not the ten-gallon lid he wears to sip his sarsaparilla. You figure since he's all duded up, it's a good time to ask him your question.

"When you made that commercial, Tom, did you really figure you'd ever be surrounded by Redskins?"

Tom Landry smiled, sort of, because back during the strike, when he filmed the thing, only their mothers loved the Redskins.

The boss cowpoke thought over the proposition. He even blushed. And then he spoke, carefully. "A good chance," he said. "Every year, there's a good chance."

Now, praise be, the cursed Cowboys will find themselves surrounded in fact as well as for the profit of American Express. With today's 37-26 victory over the Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys earned a shot at the Redskins in next Saturday's National Conference championship game at RFK Stadium.

And these Cowboys figure it's going to be tougher to get out of RFK than it was for Landry to amble through the swinging doors of that saloon. The more you talked to the Cowboys today, the more they sounded like a posse about to mount up in hot pursuit of a gang whose hideout is in the middle of rattlesnake country.

The Cowboys have problems and they know it. They lost their last two regular-season games, at home to Philadelphia and at Minnesota. Those teams were 0-3 against the Redskins. In last week's playoff opener, the Cowboys' 30-17 margin over Tampa Bay was misleading. The defense is so inconsistent that for the first time in memory Landry went into a game, today's, saying he'd be happy to give up only three touchdowns.

Green Bay should have won, had it done anything early. The Packers had minus-eight yards in the first quarter. Then they rolled up 474 yards the last three quarters. Only the Washington Monument is less mobile than Packer quarterback Lynn Dickey, but he moved well enough to frustrate the Cowboys' alleged monsters on defense.

Landry said it didn't bother him to give up that much, because his guys made the big plays when they needed them. Incredible. The boss cowpoke, the defensive genius, said 474 yards didn't bother him. The other opinion is that Green Bay's offense, full of fumbles and inexplicable pass patterns that sent the receiver one way and the ball another, was terrible when it needed to be only mediocre to win.

Anyway, forget the Packers.

Let's talk to that posse of Cowboys headed for the last roundup at RFK.

Tony Hill, receiver: "Up in Washington, they said, 'We want Dallas.' My philosophy is, 'Want some, get some,' and we're going to give it to them."

Danny White, quarterback: "It's going to be a great game. Everything's there for it to be one of the greatest games of all time. The excitement is already starting to build. The team that plays the best, executes under tremendous pressure will win."

Is he, someone asked, implying that the Cowboys, with all their playoff experience, might execute better in Saturday's circumstances?

"No, not at all. Washington has a corps of veterans, they're playing at home and there'll probably be more pressure on us than them. This one is for the Super Bowl, and I don't think the Cowboys can be expected to handle the pressure any better than the Redskins."

Tony Dorsett, running back: "We want to go to the Super Bowl, and Washington's in our way. This is the third time in three years that we've been one game away. We're hoping the third time is the charm. We'll mix it up for 60 minutes and see what happens."

But, listen, Tony, what's it like playing the Redskins at RFK?

"It's a place you don't want to go play, because of the fans. They don't like us. They're the kind of fans everybody ought to have. Our fans are starting to come around that way. They're boisterous up there. What's great is to go up there and put a silencer on them.

"It's rough, it's so loud. It's like it's the last day of your life."

This is Dorsett's testimony based on six years of visiting the nation's capital, including this season's Dec. 5 game won by the Cowboys, 24-10. That was some game, Dorsett said. It was, he said, a playoff-type game, full of (yes) intensity and (for sure) pressure.

It was surprising, then, to hear Landry's remembrance of things past. That Dec. 5 game, the boss cowpoke said, really wasn't much of anything. It's amazing what you learn if you keep your ears open, and here's the boss cowpoke saying it didn't mean much to win at RFK when that victory left the Cowboys and Redskins both with 4-1 records.

Here's what he said when somebody asked him how the Cowboys are different now, six weeks later: "We're playing with more enthusiasm. That first game was kind of a matter-of-fact game."

Someone with ears thought, "Oh, really?"

"We probably did Washington the best favor we could."

The ears stayed open, learning.

"If they beat us, they might have got cocky."

The ears seemed to be hearing someone say the Cowboys are the measure of all that is good.

"But the Redskins kept getting better, and right now they're as good as any team in the league."

Then he rode off into the sunset.