ATLANTA -- Babe Laufenberg could not quarterback the Dallas Cowboys into the playoffs. Now they must hope Rams quarterback Jim Everett can.
Making his first NFC start in a game the Cowboys needed to win to clinch a playoff spot, Laufenberg and his offense floundered yesterday as the Cowboys were pummeled, 26-7, by the lowly Atlanta Falcons in their regular-season finale before a crowd of 50,097.
Despite their 7-9 record, the Cowboys still can qualify for the playoffs as the final wild-card team if the Los Angeles Rams upset the New Orleans Saints tonight (9, Ch. 13) in the Superdome. That would leave the Cowboys and Saints with identical records -- and the Cowboys hold the tiebreaker edge because of their regular-season victory over the Saints.
"I was hoping I could sit home, have a beer and cheer Steve Walsh on for about 500 yards Monday night," Laufenberg said of his former teammate. "Now, obviously, I'm pulling for Jim Everett to have that kind of day."
The NFC Central Division champion Chicago Bears await either the Cowboys or the Saints in the first round of the playoffs, but Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson doesn't see any reason to book a weekend flight to Chicago.
"The Saints can get ready to play Chicago," Johnson snapped at his post-game news conference, conceding the berth after his club's disappointing effort.
Laufenberg was forced into his first NFL start since 1988 because of a shoulder separation suffered by Troy Aikman last week -- and the rusty, inexperienced quarterback was no match for the gambling, blitzing Falcons.
He finished 10-for-24 passing for 129 yards with three sacks and two interceptions, including one returned by Deion Sanders 61 yards for a touchdown.
"Babe had a tough day," Johnson said.
So did the Cowboys' special teams. Rookie place-kicker Ken Willis, who had not missed a field goal of 40 yards or less all season, missed on tries of 34 and 33 yards. He also had his second-half kickoff returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Keith Jones.
Rookie running back Emmitt Smith entered the game with aspirations of a 1,000-yard season. Dallas opened the game in a two-tight end set and handed the ball to Smith eight times in the first quarter.
But Smith gained only 12 yards that period and 34 yards in the game, finishing the season at 937.