The Dallas Cowboys had everything to play for and the New York Giants had absolutely nothing to play for today at Texas Stadium. The result was predictable, a 26-18 Dallas victory that vaulted the Cowboys into the postseason as a wild-card team, even though they lost three of their previous four games.
The Cowboys (8-8), the fifth seed in the NFC, travel to Minnesota to face the 10-6 Vikings Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Dallas finished 7-1 at home, but will take a 1-7 road record into the Metrodome in Minneapolis, one of the noisiest and most distracting venues in the league and a place where the Cowboys lost, 27-17, on a Monday night in Week 9.
Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman had one of his better games, completing 23 of 32 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-clinching 90-yard throw on a short slant pattern to Jason Tucker late in the third quarter to secure a second straight playoff berth under Coach Chan Gailey.
Tucker, who was on the Green Bay Packers practice squad last season, also returned the opening kickoff for 79 yards, setting up the first of four field goals by Eddie Murray. Though Tucker dropped a certain touchdown pass in the second period, he did have four catches for 122 yards and 215 all-purpose yards.
"I don't know if you can say I'm the go-to guy," Tucker said. "I just try to make plays when they go to me. Right now, my confidence is real high."
Veteran running back Emmitt Smith gained 122 yards on the ground, his ninth 100-yard rushing game of the season, on a day the offensive line allowed no sacks and opened enough holes for Dallas to total 149 running yards. Smith had 140 yards rushing against the Vikings two months ago before breaking his hand in that game and missing the second half.
"That gives you confidence you can do it," Smith said. "If you do it one time, you can do it again."
Dallas owner Jerry Jones also was heartened by his team's victory today. He had called a meeting of about 20 veteran players last Monday to emphasize the urgency of the situation, and he let them know that jobs clearly would be on the line in what promises to be an offseason of significant changes.
"We've got a chance to make a mark here," Jones said of his team's chances in the playoffs. "I know on any given day we can beat any of these teams we'll be playing. . . . I genuinely feel that we can do something special here and go to the Super Bowl. No one can look at our football team and say we can't win three games in a row."
Jones also insisted he would not even think about what changes he will make until after the season but said none of his remarks concerning the team's chance of making the Super Bowl should be interpreted as a vote of confidence for his second-year head coach.
The reality of the Cowboys' situation is this: None of the previous six teams in NFL history that entered the postseason with .500 records or worse won a playoff game.
Aikman also insisted the meeting with Jones had nothing to do with his teammates' performance today. "We're paid professionals," he said. "If it takes someone telling each guy that he has to be accountable, then we have the wrong guys out there.
"We won a game and we're in the playoffs," Aikman said. "We knew if we lost, we'd go home. I don't know if it gets any more urgent than that. . . . I do think a lot of teams in the NFC are lumped together. I think anyone can win this thing. It's a cliche, but this year that's more true than any season I've been a part of. It's who gets the hottest at the right time."
The Giants got cold at the worst time. They finished 7-9, losing their third straight game down the stretch. Their owner, Wellington Mara, had addressed the team earlier in the week for the first time in more than 30 years to express his disappointment with their play in back-to-back losses to St. Louis and the Vikings.
The Giants were eliminated from the playoffs before today's kickoff by virtue of the Green Bay Packers' victory over the Arizona Cardinals earlier in the day. The Cowboys knew they would be in the postseason only with a victory, and played like a team that cared about it.
They scored on all four of their first-half possessions and opened a 16-0 lead at intermission. Smith had his longest run of the year, a 45-yard off-tackle play that helped set up Aikman's four-yard scoring pass to Rocket Ismail midway through the second quarter. The Giants, meantime, twice elected to punt on fourth-and-five situations from the Dallas 36 and 38 in the first half, a strange decision considering they had nothing to lose by trying to keep the drive alive and make a game of it. Said Coach Jim Fassel, "I just wanted to do what I thought would give us the best chance to win."
The game-breaking play came in the third quarter, with the Cowboys ahead 16-3. Facing a second-and-14 at their own 10-yard line, Dallas called a slant play it had been using with considerable success all day out of a three-wide receiver set. Tucker had single coverage by cornerback Jeremy Lincoln, and Aikman's quick pass to him turned into a 90-yard gem when Lincoln missed a diving tackle and Tucker dashed untouched to the end zone for a 23-3 lead.
The Giants managed two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but when Dallas recovered an onside kick with 57 seconds remaining, all hopes for a miracle comeback and possible overtime ended for a Giants team that also might undergo some significant offseason changes.
For at least a week, the Cowboys can put off concerns about their fate and focus on the Vikings.
"This team has been through a lot and this team has responded for the most part when it's absolutely necessary," Aikman said. "Right now, we've had as good a season as last year when you get right down to it, because all that matters is what happens in the playoffs."