PAST THEIR PRIME DALLAS OUTLASTED SAN FRANCISCO IN A GAME PITTING TEAMS THAT AREN'T WHAT THEY USED TO BE

November 18, 1996

When Troy Aikman threw the interception on Sunday that could
have doomed the Dallas Cowboys' season, the eyes of Texas--and
Cowboys watchers everywhere--were upon him. With the game on the
line Aikman reverted to recent form against the San Francisco
49ers, who since 1994 had brought out the worst in the NFL's
most-decorated active quarterback. Beyond that, Aikman, so
dependable so much of the time, had blown the previous week's
game against the Philadelphia Eagles by throwing an end-zone
interception in the final minute, thereby denying Dallas an
opportunity to attempt a game-tying field goal. Now he had
seemingly delivered a repeat performance. Hoping to find wideout
Deion Sanders at the 49ers' two-yard line and score a game-tying
touchdown with 6:36 remaining, Aikman instead threw the ball to
Niners cornerback Marquez Pope. As Aikman walked disgustedly to
the sideline and pondered the specter of a 5-5 record, it seemed
the whole world was watching the Cowboys' five-year run of
excellence leave the field with him.

But the next thing Aikman saw was the resolute stare of right
tackle Erik Williams, whose forehead bears the scars of the
horrific car accident that nearly ended his career two years
ago. In Williams's chocolate-brown eyes Aikman saw the wear and
tear of three Super Bowl titles and the many obstacles Dallas
has overcome along the road to glory. "I believe, baby,"
Williams told Aikman. "I believe."

And stunningly, a few seconds later, the Cowboys had added
reason to believe. On the first play following the interception,
49ers quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a pass behind fullback
William Floyd and into the hands of Dallas linebacker Fred
Strickland at the San Francisco 15. Aikman and Williams and
their offensive mates trotted back onto the field with a spring
in their step. Five plays later Aikman threw a six-yard
touchdown pass to tight end Eric Bjornson to send the game into
overtime, and then he completed all five of his pass attempts in
OT to set up Chris Boniol's game-deciding 29-yard field goal.

The Cowboys' 20-17 victory was probably the most emotional
regular-season triumph of coach Barry Switzer's three-year
tenure. Combined with the Sunday losses of the Green Bay Packers
(8-2) and the two teams ahead of Dallas in the NFC East, the
Eagles and the Washington Redskins (both 7-3), the win propelled
the Cowboys back into the thick of the playoff race, with a
rerun of last January's NFC Championship Game between Dallas and
Green Bay to be played this Monday night at Texas Stadium.

"I'm always amazed at the things this team does year in and year
out to survive," Williams said after the game. "The courage and
the heart we've shown and the tests this team has gone through
have made our run very special. These were two
championship-caliber teams going at it in an all-out battle, and
the last one standing would win. It was like the Tyson-Holyfield
fight."

In fact, this was more like Ali-Frazier III: a rugged match
between two proud heavyweights who may be beyond their prime.
Between them, Dallas and San Francisco have won six of the last
eight Super Bowls, including the past four, but the Cowboys and
the Niners of '96 have looked fragile on offense and have been
beholden to their defenses. Sunday's game was true to form: San
Francisco (7-3) jumped to a 10-0 lead and had a chance to put
Dallas away. But the Cowboys knocked out quarterback Steve Young
with a concussion and climbed back into the game. The question
then became, Which tired defense would give first?

The answer didn't come until the overtime, when the 49ers were
the ones who buckled. San Francisco had controlled the ball for
all but 3:30 of the first quarter, but after that Dallas's
offense was on the field for 35:50 to the Niners' 15:27. "Both
teams were exhausted," said San Francisco defensive tackle
Bryant Young, who spent much of the afternoon in the Dallas
backfield. "I think that's as hard as both teams can play."

The clubs came in with a clear understanding of the game's
implications. In the San Francisco locker room, where critics
tend to be more biting than David Brinkley, you never would have
known this was a team that had won three straight. The Niners
were worried sick about the state of their once mighty West
Coast offense, a point driven home early last week by its
architect, Bill Walsh. Now an administrative assistant to the
coaching staff, Walsh asked second-year offensive coordinator
Marc Trestman if he could meet alone with the offensive players.
The 20-minute session, which included pointed comments about
Trestman's play-calling from Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry
Rice and tight end Brent Jones, seemed to clear the air, though
it was news to coach George Seifert. Walking down a hallway
outside the meeting room, Seifert saw some of his offensive
assistants and asked where the players had gone. Told they were
meeting with Walsh, Seifert glared and retreated to his office.

The consensus among prominent Niners, as it was last season, is
that Trestman needs to be more aggressive and imaginative with
his play-calling. But Trestman can only do so much with the
wounded Young at quarterback; two early-season injuries, a
fractured pubic bone and a pulled groin, plus two concussions in
the last three games, have rendered him tentative and vulnerable
and have thrown off the offense's delicate timing. Before the
game against Dallas, many voices inside the Niners' complex told
Seifert that Grbac, who was coming off a bruised left shoulder,
should be playing. Seifert apparently listened, informing his
assistants he was prepared to yank Young against the Cowboys if
Young was ineffective.

As it turned out, the Cowboys KO'd Young, and Grbac played one
of the worst games of his four-year career, tossing a pair of
gift-wrapped interceptions that led to 10 Dallas points.
Nevertheless, Seifert will probably have to place his faith in
Grbac again for this week, if not beyond. Consecutive
second-quarter hits by Cowboys linebackers Broderick Thomas and
Jim Schwantz and strong safety Darren Woodson gave Young at
least his sixth concussion in the past several seasons, and a
prolonged rest may be needed.

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.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Thomas (51) delivered the first big shot against Young, who was sidelined two plays later. [Steve Young lying on back after being tackled by Broderick Thomas] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Late in the second quarter Aikman ran three yards on a quarterback draw for the Cowboys' first TD. [Troy Aikman in game] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Irvin, who had six receptions for 88 yards, drew a crowd before, during and after the game. [Michael Irvin in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)