Watching the Dallas Cowboys breeze to a methodical 30-11 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC divisional playoff matchup on Sunday, you had to wonder: Is this the same Cowboy team that seemed so seriously flawed before the game?
Quarterback Troy Aikman had been playing on two wobbly legs. Star running back Emmitt Smith appeared to have lost his punch late in the season. The Dallas defense was soft in the gut. The offensive line, to its eternal shame, could not bang out half a yard on fourth down—not once but twice—in a 20-17 loss to these same Eagles on Dec. 10. Cornerback Deion Sanders hadn't done much except make pizza commercials with the Cowboy owner.
And the enemy was Philadelphia, a gang of roughnecks who had smacked it to Dallas in their last meeting, a snarling team coached by dynamo Ray Rhodes, who this season had squeezed every last drop of energy out of his troops. Last Friday, Cowboy coach Barry Switzer listed the things that caused him the most worry.
"I worry about the Eagles' running north and south against our front because we're not a great physical defense—we're more lateral," he said. "I worry about [defensive end] Charles Haley's being out, recovering from back surgery, because he had 10½ sacks and our next best guy had 5½."
All worries were put to rest very early on Sunday. The return of defensive tackle Russell Maryland and middle linebacker Robert Jones to the lineup firmed up the north-and-south center of the defense, which had five sacks and held Philly to 74 yards rushing. Aikman was a precise 17 for 24 for 253 yards and a touchdown. Smith ran for 99 yards in little more than three quarters' work. Even Sanders got into the act on offense, with a 21-yard touchdown run on an end around, reversing his field once, picking his way through traffic and finally high stepping into the end zone.
A nice, functional win, all right, but let's remember that since reaching Super Bowl level three years ago, Dallas has made a habit of coming up big in playoff openers. Quick now: What team did the Cowboys beat on the way to the last three NFC Championship Games against the 49ers? The answer is the Green Bay Packers (twice, 1994 and '95) and Philadelphia (1993). All of these games were totally forgettable, containing as little drama as Sunday's did.
The last play of the first quarter was the biggest of the game for the Eagles, even though Dallas was leading only 3-0 at the time. The play also added a nasty footnote to the Philadelphia story, marking as it did the certain end of quarterback Randall Cunningham's career with the Eagles.
Philly had gone three-and-out on its first three possessions but finally got something going, moving 31 yards to third-and-four on the Dallas 12. Quarterback Rodney Peete scrambled to his right, turned upfield, drove for the first down and ran smack into Cowboy safety Darren Woodson.
Now perhaps a more mobile quarterback—a Steve Young, for instance—would have gone into his repertoire of moves. At 225 pounds, however, Peete has a lot of heart but not much agility. He chose the overland route. The result was like watching a guy run into a tree. His effort earned him three yards and a concussion. The Eagles settled for a tying field goal, Peete was taken to the locker room, and Cunningham was put in control of the team's postseason destiny. That was all she wrote because Cunningham was ill-prepared for any kind of game action.
Before Philadelphia's wild-card game with the Detroit Lions on Dec. 30, Cunningham's wife, Felicity, was due to give birth to the couple's first child, in Las Vegas. Cunningham made it very clear to the Eagle coaching staff that he would be with her for the delivery, game or no game. His decision didn't sit well with his teammates. The undercurrent that you heard in the Philadelphia locker room was that Cunningham was deliberately sticking it to the club for having benched him after the first month of the season.