IRVING, TEX., NOV. 26 -- No matter how hard or how spectacularly the Minnesota Vikings play, they'll never be able to make up the three replacement games that might have cost the union team a truly great season.

But when the Vikings left Texas Stadium today, exhausted but exhilarated over their 44-38 overtime victory against the Cowboys, they walked out with the best record (7-1) of any union team in the National Football League.

Darrin Nelson's 24-yard run through the middle of the Dallas defense eight minutes into overtime ended one of the most bizarre and entertaining games of the season -- a game that left the Vikings a step closer to securing a wild-card playoff berth, a game that left the Cowboys slipping out of contention, and a game that left Dallas quarterback Danny White nearly in tears.

"I lost the game," White said, his eyes red and welling. "We had a chance to win it and all I had to do was execute. I got too brave too many times. It's a huge burden to carry as a quarterback."

The Cowboys, of course, wouldn't have been in the game without White's four touchdown passes. But his final interception -- White said he felt pressure and unloaded the ball in the wrong direction -- gave Minnesota possession.

The Vikings had blown a few scoring chances, too, but not the one that counted most. "I was just trying to get the ball to the middle of the field to set up a field goal," Nelson said. "We ran the most basic play we have in our playbook. And it worked."

Despite the replacement Vikings going 0-3 during the NFL players' strike, Minnesota improved to 7-4, and retreated to the Northlands to wait 10 days for a Sunday night match with the hated Chicago Bears.

"People have asked a million times about where this team would be without the replacement games," Minnesota Coach Jerry Burns said afterward, "but all I've been telling them is that we had a big hole to climb out of. I told the team before the game, 'If we dig again today, we might finally see some light.' "

They did, after nearly four hours, and only after the worst kind of struggle.

Dallas (5-6) trailed by 14 points three times, but managed to turn a 38-24 deficit into a 38-38 tie in the final six minutes, as White threw two of his four touchdown passes.

But Cowboys fans, who unmercifully booed White all afternoon, at times for the simple sin of walking onto the field, left with the same feeling they brought into the stadium: that White would be the Thanksgiving turkey.

He had accounted for all five Dallas touchdowns and was having one of the best games of his career, but threw an interception at the end of regulation that prevented a possible Cowboys victory and another in overtime that the Vikings turned into the winning score.

His 25 completions in 41 attempts for 341 yards meant nothing to the Dallas fans when a short pass -- it looked like a receiver should have been nearby -- was intercepted by linebacker Scott Studwell in overtime and returned to the Vikings 40.

Burns recalled how his team had successfully run the ball against the Dallas defense several times, and decided to try the same approach again after the interception on the Vikings' second drive in overtime. His decision might have been influenced by the fact that receivers dropped two passes on the Vikings' first overtime series.

Nelson's holding penalty on the first overtime series nullified a 32-yard completion to fullback Rick Fenney that could have set up a game-winning field goal.

The Vikings eliminated the mistakes on the game-winning drive. Four consecutive rushes might have loosened up the Cowboys for Wilson's 24-yard completion to Carter, which took the Vikings from the 50 to the Dallas 26.

But place kicker Chuck Nelson had already had one field-goal attempt blocked; he also missed a 46-yarder that could have won the game with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter. Darrin Nelson's touchdown run eliminated taking any risks.

Several Vikings had been standing on the sideline, all but covering their eyes before White threw his final interception. Some were old enough to remember Clint Longley and Roger Staubach leading Thanksgiving Day comebacks in the 1970s.

"You've seen it before on Thanksgiving Day, and in fact, we were even talking about Clint Longley doing it that one time," tackle Greg Koch said.

Minnesota tackle David Huffman, who grew up here, said, "I saw Clint Longley throw his bomb {to beat the Redskins, 24-23, in 1974} and I have watched them come back so many times, and I was just standing there thinking, 'Oh God, not again. Not today.' It just seemed like they were going to do it again."

The Vikings took a 14-0 lead on an 11-yard pass from Tommy Kramer to Carter and Kramer's one-yard sneak before he bruised his throwing arm and had to leave the game.

But White scored on a one-yard run, then passed three yards to Herschel Walker (76 yards rushing, 91 yards receiving) to tie the game.

The Vikings got a 37-yard touchdown pass from Kramer and a 52-yard run from Nelson to make it 28-14. But the Cowboys got the first of three White-to-Mike Renfro touchdown passes and a Roger Ruzek field goal to stay in contention.

Fighting back in such a way at least left the Cowboys with hope. "We've got to go out and win the rest of the games," Walker said. Minnesota 14 7 7 10 6 44 Dallas 0 14 10 14 0 38 First Quarter

M -- Carter 11 pass from Kramer (C. Nelson kick), 3:35

M -- Kramer 1 run (C. Nelson kick), 8:45 Second Quarter

D -- D. White 1 run (Ruzek kick), 3:10

D -- Walker 3 pass from D. White (Ruzek kick), 11:36

M -- Carter 37 pass from Kramer (C. Nelson kick), 13:45 Third Quarter

M -- D. Nelson 52 run (C. Nelson kick), 4:26

D -- FG Ruzek 38, 9:52

D -- Renfro 8 pass from D. White (Ruzek kick), 11:50 Fourth Quarter

M -- FG C. Nelson 33, 1:27

M -- Fenney 1 run (C. Nelson kick), 6:36

D -- Renfro 14 pass from D. White (Ruzek kick), 8:56

D -- Renfro 18 pass from D. White (Ruzek kick), 12:52 Overtime

M -- D. Nelson 24 run (no PAT attempted), 7:51

A -- 54,229

Vikings Cowboys First downs 27 23 Rushes-yards 40-188 34-112 Passing yards 288 291 Return yards 55 84 Passing 18-36-2 25-41-3 Sacked-yards lost 4-24 6-50 Punts-average 6-39 5-38 Fumbles-lost 1-0 3-2 Penalties-yards 5-53 8-64 Time of possession 32:11

RUSHING -- Minnesota: D. Nelson 16-118, A. Anderson 10-38, Fenney 10-31, Kramer 1-1, Rice 3-0. Dallas: Walk

PASSING -- Minnesota: Kramer 9-18-1, 123 yards, W. Wilson 9-18-1, 189. Dallas: D. White 25-41-3, 341.

RECEIVING -- Minnesota: Carter 8-184, D. Nelson 5-43, Jordan 3-41, Lewis 2-44. Dallas: Renfro 7-100, Walker

MISSED FIELD GOALS -- Minnesota: C. Nelson 44, 47, 46.