Johnson responded in much the same fashion after the Cowboys pulled to 17-14 five minutes into the second half. He ran behind Garrido for 12. He cut back off a Skrepenak block for nine more. He darted between Elliott and Garcia for another 12. "We went in with a mind-set to go at them with our basic runs—24 and 25 Bob—and just pick a hole and go," said Skrepenak. "They don't have that anchor in the middle, that run-stopper like Green Bay has with Gilbert Brown. We had a sense of confidence all week that we could run, and the coaches never varied from that. That's the good thing about these coaches. They have confidence in what we're going to do. They don't change. I've been on Raiders teams where you change everything on Friday—or even Sunday—and it drives you crazy. Not here."
Johnson ran for 76 of his 104 yards in the second half, setting up a pair of 40-yard field goals from John Kasay, the second of which stretched the Panthers' lead to nine with 11:41 left. Now Dallas was in trouble, and when Deion Sanders went out with a head injury after running for 16 yards on a reverse on the next drive, the Cowboys were really in a bind. "Without Michael and Deion," Aikman said in a whisper afterward, "it was a crapshoot."
Nevertheless, Aikman took Dallas 78 yards in 12 plays before settling for Boniol's 21-yard field goal. That stall-out epitomized the Cowboys' day. On four drives they had first downs on the Carolina three, two, five and nine; they came out of those situations with one touchdown and three field goals.
With Dallas trailing 23-17 and 3:44 remaining, Aikman moved the Cowboys from the shadow of their goal line to their 37 before forcing a deep throw into double coverage on first down. Free safety Pat Terrell picked the ball off and returned it 49 yards to the Dallas 19. Four plays later Kasay kicked a 32-yard field goal. Ball game.
Now we can write the epitaph on the Cowboys' season, which began last March with a knock on the door of a suburban Dallas hotel. The knockers were police officers, and inside were two self-employed models, drug paraphernalia and Irvin, a married man and the father of two. From there things went downhill for the Cowboys. Irvin pleaded no contest to a felony charge of cocaine possession, and the NFL suspended him and defensive end Shante Carver for five and six games, respectively, for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy. The Cowboys hopscotched profitably but foolishly from their training camp site in Austin for a scrimmage and exhibition games in Dallas, El Paso, Orlando and Monterrey, Mexico, and never gelled. Smith was banged up all season, and defensive end Charles Haley appeared in only five of the first eight games before being sidelined with a bad back. Dallas finished 24th in the NFL in scoring, largely because Aikman was without his crutch, tight end Jay Novacek, who missed the season with a back injury. In December, All-Pro defensive tackle Leon Lett was banned for a year for substance abuse. The final bombshell came last week, when a 23-year-old woman accused tackle Erik Williams and another man of raping her while Irvin held a gun to her head. The incident remains under investigation.
Regardless of whether the latest scandal has legs, Dallas players seem to have no fear of retribution from the organization for any wrongdoing. One Cowboy said last week that players who are routinely late for meetings are not punished. Coach Barry Switzer says he won't babysit players, and last week he lashed out at those who think he's too soft. "If people want to think I'm part of the problem, that it starts at the top and comes down, they're full of s—," he said. "Everyone is responsible for his own behavior."
Scandals and all, it was startling to see so many Dallas players looking dispassionate on Sunday with their season on the line. "Coming out for the second half, I passed some of them in the tunnel," Elliott said. "They had a dead look. No spirit."
The Panthers, by contrast, were overflowing with spirit. They're an old-fashioned team run by an old-fashioned coach and are so united it's almost hokey. TRUST EACH OTHER! implored a message on a board in the Carolina locker room before Sunday's game.
Ninety minutes later there was a poignant scene not far from that board. The two spiritual leaders of the defense, Greene and fellow linebacker Sam Mills, saw each other from across the room. In the postgame frenzy, they hadn't talked yet, these warriors of 23 combined seasons. They walked toward each other and hugged long and hard. Greene put his face close to Mills's right ear. "We're alive!" Greene said. "We're alive!"
Carolina alive, Dallas home for the winter. In this oddest of seasons, both of their fates seem exquisitely deserved.