Miami Dolphins Coach Jimmy Johnson probably returned to South Florida Thanksgiving night seething about the dismal performance of his football team in a nationally televised 20-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the team he took to two Super Bowl titles.

However, Johnson managed to keep his emotions in check when he met the media shortly after the game. There was no snarl in his voice, no snapping back at questions he didn't welcome. There was no lashing out at veteran quarterback Dan Marino, who tossed up a career-high five interceptions.

It was almost as if Johnson understood it would be a waste of energy at a time when he needs to start preparing for a critical AFC East game a week from Sunday, against the division-leading Indianapolis Colts. Miami fell (8-3) out of a first-place tie with the Colts (8-2), who will face the Jets Sunday in Indianapolis.

Johnson also knew the nature of these Cowboys, some of whom he coached in the glory days of the early '90s. He knew that veterans Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders would use words and deeds to rally a Dallas team that was in desperate straits at 5-5 in a must-win situation for the home team. And he also knew how much the man who once signed his checks, owner Jerry Jones, wanted to win the first meeting of the teams at Texas Stadium since Johnson's departure in 1994.

Johnson spoke afterward like a man who almost believed the Cowboys' win was preordained.

"They still have great players," Johnson said. "Plus, you know they're 5-5 and playing on national television, and I thought they played great.

"This is a tough place to come in and win. I thought our guys fought hard. I thought we gave good effort. But we just didn't make enough plays."

Johnson also insisted that he has no intention of going back to Damon Huard at quarterback after the disastrous outing by Marino, who had missed the previous six weeks with a shoulder injury caused by a pinched nerve in his neck. Marino will start against the Colts on Dec. 5, Johnson said.

The Dolphins have other problems. With emerging rookie running back Cecil Collins out for the season because of a broken leg, the ground game continues to sputter. Marino's favorite receiver, O.J. McDuffie, missed the game because of a sore toe. The Dolphins used several no-name receivers to complement Tony Martin, who frequently was double-covered.

Dallas's defense, meantime, clearly outplayed Miami's. Much of that was due to Marino's troubles; some also was a result of fine coaching by defensive coordinator Dave Campo, who mixed coverages all afternoon and sent waves of people toward the immobile Marino to throw off his already shaky timing.

The victory left the Cowboys a half-game behind the 6-4 Redskins. If the two teams should tie for the NFC East Division lead at the end of the regular season, Dallas would win the title by virtue of its two victories over Washington, pushing the Redskins into the wild-card pool. But Dallas has significant problems, most of them on offense. The loss of wide receiver Michael Irvin--for at least this season--has allowed teams to double-cover Raghib Ismail, often forcing Aikman to look elsewhere at a mostly mediocre group of receivers. Smith is playing with a broken hand,

Still, Jones didn't seem to have a care in the world after the victory.

"This was important for us to win today, and you can put it in any order you want to," he said. "Because Jimmy Johnson was coaching. Because they're a good team. Because they have a good staff. Because they have a shot at the Super Bowl and we knew we had a fight on our hands. Because Jimmy Johnson was back in town. Any way you look at it, this was a very big win." And for Johnson, a very big loss, even if he wouldn't say so.