"Here I am," Favre said, "three nights before the biggest game of my life, and I'm playing with a rabbit and eating Gummy Bears. I think that helps, being so relaxed. It's just a game. If I ever knew how many people were counting on what I did, I'd go nuts."
In spite of their leader's laudable poise and Dallas's inconsistent regular season, the Packers were at a disadvantage entering the game. Losers of six straight to the Cowboys since 1991, they had never been able to contend with the passing accuracy of Aikman, the physicality of Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek, and the relentless, driving style of Smith. Green Bay defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur thought the solution might be to play a more bruising and intimidating game. Yet while the contest was as nasty as any in recent memory, the Cowboys appeared to relish the violence.
"I pray they'll play me physical," Irvin said before the game. "If they do, I will unleash the wrath of Michael upon them." When things got rough, it was the Packers who fared worse. With 10 minutes left in the game, Irvin snared Aikman's 36-yard pass despite being used as a sparring partner by cornerback Doug Evans. On the next play, Smith scored Dallas's final touchdown on a 16-yard run off tackle.
On defense the Cowboys knew their success depended on containing Favre. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo believed that Favre's success this season was the result of being able to connect consistently over the middle. A Packer back or a tight end always seemed to get open by shedding a linebacker. So Campo devised a defense that had a safety moving up into the linebacker area. "Our goal will be to create confusion in the middle of the field," Campo said before the game. "We'll never give him the middle like he's had recently."
Late in the first quarter, Favre proved the wisdom of Campo's strategy. With Cowboy safety Darren Woodson clogging the middle, Favre tried to force a screen pass underneath to fullback Dorsey Levens. Defensive tackle Leon Lett stuck out his massive arms and picked it off. Three plays later Dallas scored on a four-yard pass from Aikman to Irvin for a 14-3 lead.
Still, the Cowboys knew there were risks in their clog-the-middle scheme, and Favre exposed them twice within the next three minutes. With 2:20 left in the quarter, Cowboy cornerback Larry Brown, with no safety behind him to help out, lost a step to speedy wide receiver Robert Brooks, who beat Brown for a 73-yard touchdown. On the Packers' second play of the second quarter, Favre found a Dallas linebacker in single coverage on tight end Keith Jackson, and the quarterback threw a 24-yard strike to Jackson that put the Pack up 17-14.
But as the half progressed, Smith began to wear down the Packer defense. He had already carried 10 times in the first quarter, and he was getting even busier. "Twenty-two carries by halftime?" he said later. "I thought I might have 25 for the game."
"They said, 'We're going to run the ball. Try and stop us,' " Green Bay linebacker George Koonce said after the game. "And they still shoved it down our throats." On Dallas's second possession of the second quarter, Smith carried six times on a 13-play drive that ended with a Chris Boniol field goal, which tied the score at 17.
Green Bay was reeling, and on the next series, disaster struck. After a one-yard pass from Favre, Brooks was driven out of bounds by Woodson. Brooks slammed into Packer receivers coach Gil Haskell, whose head bounced hard off the artificial turf. The game was halted for 10 minutes while Haskell was attended to and removed by ambulance. "One of my best friends is lying there on the ground, unconscious," Holmgren said later, "and suddenly the game lost all its meaning." As of late Monday, Haskell remained in serious condition at Baylor University Medical Center with a fractured skull.
Understandably, that Packer drive stalled. But Craig Hentrich pinned the Cowboys back at their one with a 57-yard punt.