The 49ers refused to buy into these presumptions. When the game began, they jumped on Dallas like a pack of crazed wolves, scoring on the game's second play from scrimmage. Not only did the Niners proceed to knock Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman from the game with a bruised left knee—when he departed with 6:39 remaining in the first quarter, Dallas already trailed 17-0—but they also won so convincingly that Aikman actually went home during the second half. "They're a better football team than we are, period," said Dallas receiver Michael Irvin, who caught only one pass (which he then fumbled) until the Cowboys' final, futile drive.
"This is a team that isn't scared to face its mistakes and make adjustments," said Barton. "All week long we were saying to ourselves, We're going to go down there, and we are going to shock the world."
For no logical reason, as early as the previous Sunday, Sapolu, for one, felt confident about the Niners' chances against Dallas. One of the last players to clear out of a very morose locker room following the loss to the Panthers, Sapolu suddenly perked up and began flashing an I-know-something-you-don't-know smile. "I was giddy," Sapolu said after Sunday's victory. "I knew it then, but I couldn't explain it."
As the week progressed, more 49ers began to feel the same way. For one thing, the emotional edge was all San Francisco's. Sanders helped that along during a Thursday popping-off session with the media, in which he accused the Niners of being "in denial" about their depleted state. "I want to win the game big—not just by seven points," he said. "I want to do things in the end zone." Then Sanders began mocking Rice for his initial locker room tirade, in which he blasted reporters for placing too much importance upon Sanders's departure from the 49ers. "He was challenged this week," Young said of Rice, "and he was ready to face the challenge."
Of course, as driven as he is, Rice needs no artificial motivation. But other 49ers took notice of Sanders's speech; even backup quarterback Elvis Grbac, who completed five passes to Rice for 161 yards on Sunday, abandoned his usual restrained manner to boldly proclaim, "I think it was wrong for him to go say that."
Ultimately of more importance than Sanders's mouth was the game plan that the 49ers took with them to Texas, one that took Irvin out of the Cowboys' offense and wreaked havoc on the Dallas defense. Criticized by some 49er players for being too tentative during the season's first nine games, the team's first-year offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, devised a strategy that had his offense going at the Cowboys with the subtlety of a Sam Kinison comedy routine.
Grbac, who would finish the day with 20 completions in 30 attempts for 305 yards, while throwing for two scores and running for another, was excited when he saw the game plan, and by the end of Saturday's walk-through at a Dallas-area junior high school, tight end Brent Jones was saying, "We're going to win this game, because we're taking it right to them."
A couple of hours later Davis and strong safety Tim McDonald sat in a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, and expressed similar faith in their first-year defensive coordinator Pete Carroll's strategy for Sunday's game. The 49ers would rely on their front seven to contain NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith, and they would double-team Irvin, who was seeking to set an NFL record by gaining 100 yards receiving in his eighth consecutive game. Doubling up on Irvin would leave the Cowboys' other wide receiver, Kevin Williams, in single coverage against Davis or San Francisco's other cornerback, Marquez Pope. "If they're going to win, Kevin Williams is going to have to beat us," McDonald declared.
Eating what might have been the world's hottest chicken wing, Davis, who endures the chronic pain of the torn left shoulder muscles he suffered in 1991, said, "They're not going to beat us, and here's why: They expect Michael to be open, and when he isn't, they won't be able to deal with it."
The mood stayed upbeat until Barton, the 49ers' resident grouch, showed up at the restaurant and joined the discussion, reminding his teammates of the Miners' last game at Texas Stadium, a 38-21 loss in the 1993 NFC Championship Game. "Remember the way the Cowboys jumped on us?" Barton asked. "It felt like they'd had someone in our meeting rooms the whole week."