The Dallas Cowboys have this swagger that runs their motor and drives other teams crazy. Last Saturday, the night before Dallas played the Green Bay Packers in an NFC divisional playoff, Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren held a team meeting and filled his players' heads with examples of the Cowboys' cockiness. "It's unbelievable how they're acting toward this game," Holmgren said after the meeting. "It's like they're so superior to us that we shouldn't even play the game. My guys are going into the game a little bit angry."
The Packers, who were the biggest underdogs of this postseason—odds-makers had Dallas favored by 14 going into Sunday's game—were hot because coach Jimmy Johnson had told his Cowboys that they ought to beat the Packers handily and because Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman appeared to be taking the game lightly when he flew to New York to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman the Tuesday before the game. When a box of cream puffs mysteriously arrived at the Green Bay locker room in midweek, a lot of Packers took it personally. "I'm not going to come out and say how great Michael Irvin is," said Green Bay safety LeRoy-Butler of Dallas's best receiver. "He's got his own commercials for that."
But the Cowboys don't care what other people think. They don't care that special teams player Kenny Gant ticks off opponents by strutting through his end zone Shark Dance at the slightest urging. They don't care that Irvin prowls the sideline every game, screaming at Aikman to get him the ball. They don't care that Johnson has been musing on whether or not he might leave Dallas to coach one of the new expansion teams. It takes a lot more than that to distract this team.
The Cowboys follow a longtime Johnson credo: If you can walk the walk, you're allowed to talk the talk. Anytime, anyplace. "The thing that's good about Jimmy is he treats everyone as an individual," Irvin said on Sunday after Dallas walked and talked through a 27-17 playoff win at Texas Stadium. "Do what it takes to play at the top level and Jimmy's happy. Everybody tries to knock down individuals today, and I think it's one of the things that make us great. Like Kenny's dance. That's not showing anybody up. He's just excited. It helps his game. You take that away from him, and he's not going to be the same good player."
Irvin has appreciated the way Johnson handles players ever since he played for him at the University of Miami. In 1987, when the school's administration was putting heat on Johnson to rein in his cocky and combative players, Irvin, then a senior, asked Johnson if he wanted the Hurricanes to calm down a bit. "Look, you just keep winning," Johnson replied. "Do what you want, and I'll take care of all that other crap."
On Sunday the Cowboys needed Irvin to have a big game because running back Emmitt Smith had separated his right shoulder two weeks earlier and could get knocked out of the game at any time. Indeed, Smith struggled for 60 yards on 13 carries and did not appear on the field again after he threw a third-quarter block that caused him great pain. "I could have played," said Smith, who had stuck his injured shoulder into Packer linebacker Tony Bennett. "The shoulder's fine. I just felt we had the game in hand, so I came out."
Irvin came through with a personal playoff best of nine catches for 126 yards. Aikman had a big game as well (28 of 37, 302 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions), as did tight end Jay Novacek, an invisible man for most of the season, who chipped in with six catches and a touchdown. The Dallas defense held Packer rushers to 31 yards for the game and limited Sterling Sharpe to two catches until seven minutes were left, after which Green Bay put together two garbage-time drives—one of them ending in a 29-yard, Brett Favre to Sharpe touchdown pass. Make no mistake about it: Even in a lukewarm performance like Sunday's, the Cowboys are the league's most solid team, on both sides of the ball.
This Sunday they will play the game that everyone has been waiting for, a rematch with the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC Championship. Last year, in the muck of Candlestick Park, a superb all-around effort propelled Dallas to a 30-20 win and a Super Bowl berth. The feeling among the Cowboys is that a loss to the Niners this Sunday will make the season an abject failure. "As far as I'm concerned," said Johnson, ever blunt, "there's only one football game that matters to me. And we haven't gotten there yet."