Emmitt Smith is such a sound sleeper that even on the morning of game days, the Dallas Cowboy tailback does not stir before his wake-up call. On Sunday his call at the DFW Airport Marriott, where the Cowboys bunk before home games, was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. But Smith found himself wide awake and energized at 7:30, and this was his first thought: This is the day. This is the day I've been waiting for.
When his roommate, reserve running back David Lang, finally woke at around nine, Smith shared the good news. "David," Smith told him, "today is going to be a good day."
Many of the Cowboys had been waiting a long time for this day, waiting 364 days, to be exact—ever since the San Francisco 49ers beat them in last year's NFC Championship Game. For the Cowboys of the 1990s, the regular season is a mere preamble to January, the only month of the year that really matters to them. For this generation of Cowboys, any season that does not conclude with a Super Bowl appearance is a failure. "If we lose today," quarterback Troy Aikman said on Sunday, "our next 12 months are going to be total crap, until we get to this exact point again."
The Green Bay Packers desperately wanted to win this NFC title game. The Cowboys had to win. When Smith walked into the Cowboy locker room at Texas Stadium shortly after noon, "he had fire in his eyes," according to Dallas offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. Seven hours later Smith would be celebrating yet another huge game in his six-year career, having rushed 35 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys advanced to their third Super Bowl in four years with a 38-27 victory. On Jan. 28, in Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Ariz., Dallas will meet the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who earlier on Sunday defeated the Indianapolis Colts 20-16 (page 32).
The victory was sweet for the Cowboy players, who rejoiced with unaccustomed abandon. But it was positively sublime for Dallas owner Jerry Jones. Twenty-two months ago he was looking much like the village idiot after his messy split with coach Jimmy Johnson, who had taken the team to victory in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, and his subsequent hiring of former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, who had been out of football for five years. Last week Johnson had briefly diverted attention from Sunday's games with the announcement that he would be coaching the Miami Dolphins for the next four seasons at $2 million a year (page 38). Yet on Sunday night, as Jones partied at the Stadium Club, he enjoyed a delicious feeling of revenge: Jerry and Barry in the Big One—and Jimmy nowhere in sight.
"This means as much to me as the first Super Bowl," Jones said, straining to be heard above the din of a hundred fellow partyers. "If we didn't go to the Super Bowl, Barry and I would be villains. But Barry was the man for the job, and we're in the Super Bowl."
And woe be to Pittsburgh if the Cowboys click in Tempe as they did against the Packers. The mainstays of the Dallas offense—Smith, quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin—each had a vintage day. Aikman completed 21 of 33 passes for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Irvin, brawling his way clear of coverage all afternoon, finished with seven catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
That Dallas so thoroughly dominated a solid Packer team came as no small surprise. The Cowboys had put together this sort of performance only sporadically in a season that had featured a resounding defeat by the 49ers and late-season, back-to-back losses to the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. There seemed to be at least an even chance for a return to glory by the Packers.
Addressing his team the night before the game, Packer coach Mike Holmgren said, "The experts all said Dallas-San Francisco in the championship game. We proved them wrong. In July all the magazines had us fourth or fifth. The only people believing in us seven months ago were the people in this room. We proved them wrong. Go and prove them wrong again."
Holmgren's hopes rested mainly on the shoulders of quarterback Brett Favre, the NFL's Most Valuable Player this season. In his previous nine games Favre had thrown 26 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Three days before the game Favre went into the Packer equipment room at Green Bay's Lambeau Field and took the team's unofficial mascot—a black and-white rabbit, a gift from the down-state Milwaukee Brewers—out of its pen After petting the animal, Favre watched as it romped around the room. Then he put his feet up on assistant equipment manager Bryan Nehring's desk, settled down with a cupful of Gummy Bears and tried to explain the reasons behind his hot streak.