IRVING, TEX., DEC. 16 -- Rookie Emmitt Smith kept the Dallas Cowboys' wild-card playoff hopes alive today as the team that was the NFL's worst in 1989 continued its transformation to respectability.
He tied a team record by running for four touchdowns in a 41-10 revenge over the Phoenix Cardinals. The Cowboys can get into the playoffs for the first time since 1985 by winning their last two games against the Eagles and Falcons.
"We've done better than I ever imagined," said Coach Jimmy Johnson. "We knew we had to win this game and the team responded."
Dallas won its fourth consecutive game to even its record at 7-7 while the Cardinals dropped to 5-9 with their first loss in four games.
The Cowboys moved into the best position for the remaining NFC wild-card birth. Washington and Philadelphia have clinched NFC wild cards. Dallas is a full game ahead of Green Bay, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
"It's our most important victory by far," Johnson said. "Now we are in a position to make the playoffs."
It's the first time the Cowboys have won four straight games since 1985 and their first victory over the Cardinals since 1988.
With Kansas City's 27-10 loss to the Houston Oilers, the Cowboys' streak is the NFL's best active streak.
"The Cowboys are vastly improved," said Phoenix Coach Joe Bugel. "Emmitt Smith is just tremendous. When you've got a good quarterback like Troy Aikman and a good running back you've got a chance to win every time you play. I have nothing but praise for them."
Smith, a first round pick from Florida, scored on runs of one, one, one and six yards, the last one coming after he slipped and got up while defenders stood around watching.
"On that last touchdown run I reminded myself I wasn't in college anymore," Smith said. "This isn't college ball."
He tied the club mark of four rushing touchdowns that Calvin Hill established in 1971 against Buffalo. Dan Reeves, Bob Hayes, and Duane Thomas also have scored four touchdowns in a game for the Cowboys.
"The record means a lot and I guess I've surprised myself this year," he said. "But I really expect to perform like this every week."
He is only one rushing touchdown short of the Dallas rookie record of 12 by Tony Dorsett.
"This was a big day for the team, the coaching staff and the city of Dallas," Smith said. "And I think we can get better."
The Cowboys, who lost to the Cardinals by 20-3 on Oct. 14, took a 13-3 first-period lead on Smith's first two touchdown runs.
After Al Del Greco's 38-yard field goal gave the Cardinals an early 3-0 lead, Dallas drove 75 yards with Smith scoring from one yard.
James Washington's recovery of Johnny Johnson's fumble at the Phoenix 33 positioned Dallas for Smith's 11-yard scoring run.
Aikman's 39-yard pass to Irvin set up the Cowboys for a touchdown and a 20-3 halftime lead when the same combination worked from eight yards as Irvin outjumped defensive back Cedric Mack in the end zone.