From the Cowboys' standpoint as they entered Sunday's game, their heads were still ringing from the memory of last year's 38-20 loss to the 49ers—their third consecutive setback to San Francisco, all since Switzer replaced Jimmy Johnson as coach before the 1994 season. Dallas had entered last year's game heavily favored, but Grbac and the Niners jumped to a 24-0 lead. "We just took them too lightly," Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' vice president and director of player personnel, said last week. Jones, son of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, was sharing a table at a posh Dallas restaurant with stockbroker Chad Johnson, son of Jimmy—and that wasn't even the week's oddest couple. On Nov. 4 Switzer had taken a call from Chicago Bulls forward and Cowboys fan Dennis Rodman, who alluded to Aikman's having visited the locker room to relieve himself during the game against Philadelphia. "Next time," Rodman said, "tell Troy to let it go right there on the field." Switzer laughed his head off.
However, Switzer was all business later in the week as he worked with offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and defensive coordinator Dave Campo on their respective game plans. Reasoning that the 49ers' run defense, led by tackles Young and Dana Stubblefield, was too solid to penetrate consistently, Switzer told Zampese, "Turn it loose. If you want Troy to throw it 50 times, I'm all for it." Campo, meanwhile, unveiled a nickel package in which Woodson doubled as a linebacker and helped cover Rice inside—a scheme that helped limit Rice to five catches for 49 yards.
It was Rice's counterpart, Michael Irvin, who provided the pregame motivation for his team, telling the Cowboys in the locker room that he felt responsible for their slow start and challenging them to overcome it. Irvin was suspended for the season's first five games for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, and the Dallas offense has yet to recover. On Sunday the Cowboys were held without a first down until the second play of their fourth drive, when with 9:30 left in the second quarter, Aikman and Irvin hooked up for 17 yards. The Cowboys trailed 10-0 at the time, and it could have been worse. The 49ers started their third drive at the Dallas 38 after Dexter Carter's 52-yard punt return. But three plays later Thomas pried the ball from Young, and defensive tackle Leon Lett recovered.
After Dallas fought back to tie the game, Terry Kirby scored on a 27-yard run to give the Niners a 17-10 lead with 11:38 remaining. Given another chance following his interception, Aikman, on third-and-goal, lofted a pass to Bjornson in the back right corner of the end zone. San Francisco linebacker Lee Woodall, who was a few yards in front of Bjornson, jumped for the ball, but even Julius Erving in his prime would have had trouble swatting down Aikman's perfectly placed pass. In overtime it was more of the same: On third-and-seven from the Niners' 35, Aikman, who finished 24 of 39 for 230 yards, threw a dart to a sliding Sanders just beyond the first-down marker. On the next play Emmitt Smith (26 carries, 81 yards) slipped inside for a 16-yard run, his longest carry of the day, and two plays later Boniol made it official.
In the visiting owner's box Stephen Jones jumped so recklessly that he lacerated his right leg on a metal ledge. On the field the celebration was tamer, with hugs and compliments all around between players from both teams. After years of heated battles the Cowboys and the 49ers seem to have reached a common ground: Both are clawing to remain atop the NFL heap.
But Dallas remains the hands-down winner when it comes to audacity. At a postgame press conference Irvin stepped before the media wearing a white fedora, a black-and-white suit and the obligatory gold chains around his neck, prompting Sanders to say into the microphones, "And now I turn the podium over to the man who just won the pimp of the year award." When Irvin looked at his teammate awkwardly, Sanders added, "Did I introduce you wrong?"
In a joyous but restrained locker room, Aikman looked like a man whose tax audit had just been canceled. "Because of the way we started the season, every game is huge," he said. "But we still believe in this team."
They believe, baby. They believe.