Three questions into Coach Tom Landry's postgame news conference Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles -- 26-10 losers to his Dallas Cowboys -- were quickly discarded.
"Tom, whaddaya think about the Redskins?"
As usual, diplomacy ruled Landry's answer.
"Their passing game is back," he said, "and their running game will be there when (John) Riggins (who has a bad back) returns. They're going to be tough."
Perhaps it wasn't so unusual that a news conference designed to address the issues of a 10-turnover game would dissolve so quickly into a discussion of Washington-Dallas. It is one of the National Football League's strongest rivalries, no matter what the stakes. And, this Sunday at 4 p.m. in Texas Stadium, the stakes are extremely high.
The winner of this game between two 9-5 teams may find itself all alone in first place in the NFC East, if the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Giants in Busch Stadium the same afternoon.
If the Giants win, the worst the Washington-Dallas winner will be is tied for first. Whether that team stays there is another matter. The Redskins play St. Louis in RFK Stadium the season's final week. The Cowboys finish at Miami in the last Monday night game.
Although the Cowboys struggled to a 7-3 halftime lead (the touchdown was scored on an interception), the offense, behind quarterback Danny White, reemerged in the second half to turn a close game into a rout.
If the second-half Cowboys show up to play the Redskins, this should be quite a battle. But if it is the first-half Cowboys . . .
"We cannot give them that much of a start," Landry said. "We have to score with them. And they're capable of scoring pretty good when they get going."
The Cowboys' offense has shown glimpses of its old self in the last two games, both victories. Against the New England Patriots, on Thanksgiving Day, White led the Cowboys 55 yards in 10 plays in the final two minutes to win the game, 20-17, on Rafael Septien's 23-yard field goal with four seconds to play.
Against the Eagles, the Cowboys rushed 25 times for 132 yards in the second half, scoring 16 straight points in the third quarter. This saved a dismal passing day for White, who consistently underthrew receivers in the first half and ended with four interceptions, one more than he had thrown all season.
"I forced balls into tight situations and I shouldn't have," White said. "The second half, when we played more conservatively, was the kind of offense we have had in the past, not this season."
Pressed repeatedly, Landry refused to say he was "frustrated" with the offense. "No. It's a challenge for us to win," he said. "It's been a struggling year. No game has been predictable for us."
He said White's passes were "boomeranging," none more so than a second-quarter, across-the-grain floater that was picked off by strong safety-turned-center fielder Ray Ellis, who ran 29 yards before fumbling the ball right back to the Cowboys at their 20.
Despite this performance, Landry said, he "probably" would start White against the Redskins. Yet, if the running game had not jump-started the offense in the second half, Gary Hogeboom would have been playing.
"I would have come in with him pretty quick," Landry said. "We couldn't continue to play the rest of the game the way we did in the first half. Danny was not sure of himself in some of the plays he was running in the first half."
Why the change in the second half? Landry alluded to "incentive." Dallas had it, Philadelphia didn't.
The Cowboys certainly have it this week. "We're just playing every play as if it were our last play," cornerback Everson Walls said. "The NFC East is pretty much a mess."
What appears to scare Dallas most about the Redskins is that, for a change, they are healthy, with the notable exception of Riggins. That was not the case Oct. 14, when they last played. The Redskins won that game, 34-14.
"We'll meet them at their best," said defensive tackle Randy White, "and if we beat them at their best, then there will be no more discussing it."
The last two Cowboys-Redskins games have become Washington blowouts. Last December, the Redskins won, 31-10. White is concerned.
"We have had a tendency to panic when we get behind," he said. "One of the qualities of this team over the years is that we have been patient. Sometimes, it seems, in the big games, we forget that."
He believes the team is showing signs of being the Cowboys of old. On defense, there is no question about that. This defense has 17 sacks in the last two games, keeping them close while the offense sputtered. "Our defense played an excellent game (against Philadelphia)," Landry said. "The defense has been solid for us all year."
One constant, one variable. It seems fitting going into the final two weeks of a wild season.
"I think it's going to come down to the last week," Landry said, putting off the inevitable. "All these teams are capable of winning -- and losing. They've proved that all year long."