IRVING, TEX., DEC. 26 -- Last week, the Dallas Cowboys were in the drivers' seat for a wild-card berth. They had two games left and needed to win one to make the playoffs. They were led by one of the NFL's hottest quarterbacks, Troy Aikman.
This week, the entire season rests on the shoulders of Babe Laufenberg, thrust into the starter's role after Aikman separated his shoulder against Philadelphia last week, finishing his season.
Laufenberg, who has been in the league since 1983, drafted in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins out of Indiana University, can count his regular season starts on two hands. Last week, he went 13 for 36 with four interceptions after Aikman went down. He played briefly in two other games this season and none at all in 1989.
"I came in and looked at film and stuff today and Troy went out and got my lunch," Laufenberg said. "That was the biggest difference. Usually I'm the one going out while he does the work."
"I'm hoping I can help on the sidelines like he's helped me over the last two years," said Aikman.
The Cowboys will earn a postseason berth with a victory in Atlanta against the Falcons on Sunday or if the Los Angeles Rams defeat the Saints in New Orleans on Monday night.
"I've been in the league eight years," Laufenberg said. "What better position is there to be in? If we win, we go to the playoffs."
Some people in Dallas don't think that's possible, especially after he completed only three of his last 18 passes against the Eagles.
"There's always going to be people who doubt you," he said. "People say, 'What's your role?' In this business, you don't have a role. It's constantly changing. It didn't change for 14 weeks. Then you go in as a starter. People depend on you. If you have any pride at all, you want to play well."
His only previous starting assignments were in 1988 with the San Diego Chargers. He has bounced to and from teams seven times in his eight-year career, including three stints with the Redskins. He has a career high of 17 completions for 195 yards in a 1988 game.
"This is definitely the most important game I've started," he said. "But we have 30 to 35 people that have never been to the playoffs. For every one of them, this is the most important game."
But there's still the question: Can Laufenberg shoulder the load?
"Babe mentally prepares himself to play every week," tight end Jay Novacek said. "That's the hardest thing to do when you know there's a chance not to go in.
"He communicates well with the receivers and linemen. He's great in the huddle. He has a lot of confidence in himself and he's so intelligent that he can pick up things other quarterbacks might not."
And though four interceptions and a defeat don't increase confidence, having a week to work does.
"I would like to have 14 games to get ready," Laufenberg said. "But knowing I'm going to play this week should make it easier. Three days is a lot better than two minutes."
But there's still no disputing the fact that Laufenberg is no Aikman.
"The hardest thing is for everybody to adjust to me," Laufenberg said. "I sometimes threw it where Troy wouldn't throw it -- mainly to the Philadelphia guys."
But the receivers say it won't change their roles much.
"The only thing is that Troy zips it in more and Babe has more touch on his passes," Novacek said. "But he'll have to make those adjustments. We'll just run our routes the same."
To others, the differences are even less significant.
"There's not much difference between Troy and Babe, except that the guys know Troy a lot better," running back Emmitt Smith said.
This week, Laufenberg and coaches have altered the game plan to suit his capabilities. Everyone agrees the changes are minimal.
"Babe definitely has a different style," offensive coordinator Dave Shula said. "Some things he does as well as Troy. Others, not as good. We're going to have to evaluate what he likes and emphasize that, and what he doesn't like we'll probably throw out."
But because of Atlanta's strong rushing defense, most passing plays will stay.
"They're a lot like Philly," Laufenberg said. "They play eight people on the line of scrimmage and make it tough to run the ball."
Just a little pressure for a backup quarterback with three weeks to prepare for a do-or-perhaps-die game.
"I'm going to just be a guy out there, kind of a spoke in the wheel," Laufenberg said. "It's not up to me necessarily to step in and fill Troy's shoes. If everybody can step up play just a notch and I do a good job, that's what it will take."
1983: Drafted by Redskins in 6th round.
Aug. 27, 1984: Injured rotator cuff, on injured reserve all season.
Sept. 2, 1985: Cut by Redskins.
Sept. 30, 1985: Signed by Chargers.
Oct. 15, 1985: Cut by Chargers.
Nov. 20, 1985: Signed by Redskins.
Aug. 26, 1986: Cut by Redskins; signed by Saints.
Sept. 1, 1986: Cut by Saints.
Sept. 23, 1986: Re-signed by Saints; appeared in one game and did not throw a pass.
Nov. 8, 1986: Cut by Saints.
May 28, 1987: Signed by Chiefs.
Aug. 31, 1987: Cut by Chiefs.
Sept. 16, 1987: Signed by Redskins.
Oct. 27, 1987: Cut by Redskins.
March 24, 1988: Signed by Chargers; played in eight games in 1988 and was 69 of 144 for 778 yards, 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
Feb. 1, 1989: Granted unconditional free agency.
May 17, 1989: Signed by Cowboys; played in three games in 1989 and did not throw a pass.
Nov. 11, 1990: Replacing Troy Aikman late in game, was zero of three in 24-6 loss to 49ers.
Dec. 16, 1990: Replacing Aikman, was one of four for 10 yards in 41-10 win over Cardinals.
Dec. 23, 1990: With Aikman injured, was 13 of 36 for 140 yards and four interceptions in 17-3 loss to Eagles.