Snap to whistle, the play lasted 10 seconds, tops. When it was over, you knew in your bones the Boys were back. In the days after the Dallas Cowboys were gangster-slapped all over their own stadium by the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 12, the question on everyone's mind was how, or if, they would recover.
Deion Sanders provided an emphatic answer late in the first quarter of Sunday's game between the Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders, teams that entered the game with identical 8-2 records but with different agendas. On the rebound after 11 consecutive seasons without a Super Bowl appearance, the Raiders sought recognition as one of the NFL's elite teams. Dallas sought to recoup the self-esteem of which it had been stripped the previous week. That the Cowboys, 34-21 winners, would prevail was all but assured when Sanders, the $35 million cornerback, made a play that justified his preferred moniker, Prime Time.
On the first play of Oakland's third possession, Raider quarterback Jeff Hostetler went up top for wideout Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, who had a step on Sanders. What followed raised the possibility that wily old Hoss had been baited. Sanders closed on the Rocket like a Tomahawk missile and made a leaping interception.
It wasn't the pick so much as the panache subsequently displayed by Prime Time that gave one the impression that this was not Oakland's day. For the first 10 yards of his ensuing 34-yard runback, Sanders held the ball up for the inspection of the Raider bench and the 54,092 fans at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It was an incredibly brassy act that Sanders alone among NFL players could get away with. "I was just giving the fans a little something," he explained afterward, to "get them involved in the game."
In addition to ensuring that the good people of Oakland got their money's worth, the considerate Sanders was helping restore the swagger to the Cowboys' collective step. Following the 49er debacle, the NFL's most braggadocian team had begun to doubt itself. The loss hurt the team "deep, very deep," according to Emmitt Smith, who seemed to have gotten over it by Sunday, as he rushed for 110 yards and three touchdowns. His first trip into the Emmitt Zone was set up by Sanders's interception and gave Dallas a 14-0 lead, a cushion that had grown to 31-14 by the fourth quarter.
Although the Cowboys played atrociously in losing 38-20 to the 49ers seven days earlier, they completely dominated the first three quarters of the Raider game. Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, enjoying the cocoonlike protection provided by his line, completed 19 of 24 passes for 227 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Irvin that made the score 7-0.
Indeed, one of the keys to this game was the ease with which Aikman connected with Irvin, who caught seven passes for 109 yards. Despite the success the 49ers enjoyed by double-covering Irvin a week earlier, Oakland chose to trust the man-to-man coverage skills of cornerbacks Terry McDaniel and Albert Lewis, and it was punished for its hubris. On his touchdown catch Irvin toyed with McDaniel, who is widely acknowledged to be the second-best cover corner in the league. Selling McDaniel on a fake to the flag, Irvin then broke over the middle for an easy score.
"He made a great move, and I didn't make the play," said McDaniel, who shouldn't have had to make the play. With the Cowboys facing third-and-12 earlier in the drive, Lewis had been flagged for pass interference on Irvin—a 34-yard penalty. Had he not drawn that flag, "we could have been off the field," Lewis later lamented.
Raider wideout Tim Brown had a lament of his own: "Why we didn't double cover Michael Irvin, I don't know."
If Cowboy defensive coordinator Dave Campo was smiling as he boarded the team bus, it was because he was relieved that it was some other guy's turn to be second-guessed. After Niner receiver Jerry Rice had run wild against the Cowboys, Campo spent the week taking heat. When he arrived at his office at 7:30 Monday morning to review 49er video, Campo was joined by team owner Jerry Jones and Jones's son Stephen, a team vice president. "It was not the most pleasant day of Dave Campo's life," says the elder Jones.