IRVING, Texas -- It didn't take Steve Beuerlein long to pick up the Dallas Cowboys' offense: Hand the ball to Emmitt Smith and throw it to Michael Irvin.
That runner-receiver combination produced 285 yards and both touchdowns as the Cowboys overcame the absence of injured quarterback Troy Aikman with a 20-10 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers before 62,253 at Texas Stadium.
Beuerlein was thrust into the lineup when Aikman suffered a sprained right knee last week against Washington. He had just three days to prepare for his first start for the Cowboys -- and he barely practiced the first two days because of a sprained ankle he had suffered against the Redskins.
But Beuerlein executed the plan flawlessly as the Cowboys improved to 8-5 and picked up steam in the hunt for the club's first playoff berth since 1985. The eight victories also guaranteed the Cowboys their first non-losing season since 1985.
Beuerlein handed the ball to Smith 32 times for 109 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown in the first quarter that put the Cowboys ahead for good at 7-0. Beuerlein also threw Smith three passes for 19 more yards.
But Beuerlein targeted 14 of his 25 passes for Irvin, who caught eight of them for a career-best 157 yards. Irvin capped his day with 66-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that allowed the Cowboys to finally shake the Steelers.
"In a situation like this [with a new quarterback and a short week], you've got to go with the people that make the plays," Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "All you want to do is get out with a win."
The Steelers rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit to make a game of it in the second half. Gary Anderson hit a 42-yard field goal to cut the lead to 10-3 in the third quarter.
After a struggling Ken Willis kicked a 43-yard field goal for the Cowboys in the fourth quarter, the Steelers stormed back with a 75-yard drive and a 3-yard touchdown run by Warren Williams.
Even though almost eight minutes remained, the Cowboys did not run to burn the clock. Beuerlein, who finished 14-for-25 for 217 yards, threw incomplete passes to Irvin on first and second down.
But on third down, Irvin ran a deep square-in. He beat cornerback Richard Shelton on his cut then stepped up to catch the pass in front of charging safety Gary Jones. Jones collided with Shelton, and Irvin broke upfield with only cornerback Rod Woodson to beat.
Woodson, a former Big Ten champion hurdler, caught up at the 12-yard line, but Irvin shook a high tackle and slipped into the end zone with 7:22 remaining.
"It could have been an interception," Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll said. "But it wasn't. It became their big play, their touchdown. Good players make good plays."
The Steelers still had time to challenge. They quickly moved to the Dallas 48 on passes of 18 yards to Louis Lipps and 20 yards to Dwight Stone. But Russell Maryland then sacked Neil O'Donnell, forcing a fumble that was recovered by teammate Jimmie Jones at the Steelers' 28.
"This was probably Russell's best game of the season," Cowboys defensive line coach Butch Davis said of the first overall pick of the 1991 draft. "He did the things that you remember him doing from college -- making the big plays when you need them most."