IRVING, Texas -- When it finally came down to playing football, the Dallas Cowboys certainly could. The Philadelphia Eagles absolutely could not.
The Eagles could not run. They could not throw. They could not score a touchdown until the very last minute. And no matter how big and how bad that Philly defense is supposed to be, the Eagles could not deal with the Cowboys' kaleidoscope offense.
Dallas 34, Philadelphia 10 on a dark, chilly Sunday afternoon at Texas Stadium was not one of those NFC divisional playoff games decided by one play, one player or some significant strategic adjustment. And it certainly was not decided by any amount of pre-game jabber or emotional pre-game dedications.
"For us, it was, OK, let's get ready to play," Cowboys guard Nate Newton said. "We believe in playing ball. And at some point, we just had to play the game.
"And you know what? They weren't going to come to our city and turn off the lights."
The young Cowboys (14-3) earned the right to meet the San Francisco 49ers in next Sunday's NFC championship game at Candlestick Park by winning the decisive third game this season against the wild-card Eagles. They overwhelmed Philadelphia with an overbearing defense and a precise offense that leaned heavily on their Pro Bowl stars to hand the Eagles their worst non-strike game loss since the Giants beat them 35-3 on Oct. 12, 1986.
For the second consecutive game,running back Emmitt Smith rushed for more than 100 yards against the Eagles, gaining 114 )) and scoring one touchdown. Smith owns the only two 100-yard rushing games against the Eagles in their past 64 games, and the NFL's rushing king certainly put a muzzle on Eagles strong safety Andre Waters.
Then there was receiver Michael Irvin. He caught six passes for 88 yards. Tight end Jay Novacek had three catches for 36 yards, including a nifty 6-yard diving catch for a touchdown. Even backup running back Derrick Gainer got into the act, gaining as many yards in his first Cowboys appearance at running back (29) as former Cowboy and Eagles starter Herschel Walker did.
And leading this attack was Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who, despite persistent questions all week about starting his first playoff game, had a typical Aikman day: 15 of 25 for 200 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and overseeing 346 yards of offense against what might have been the last stand from that once-great Eagles defense.
"We were just ready to play and I think that was very evident," Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said after Dallas reached the NFC title game for the first time since 1982. "This has been a tremendous accomplishment by a lot of people."
A lot of those people played on the Cowboys' defense, ranked No. 1 in total yards, but possibly 28th in respect. Yet this unit, without a Pro Bowl player, suffocated the Eagles, holding them to 178 yards of total offense, just 63 yards rushing, and sacking quarterback Randall Cunningham five times. And before the game was finished, the Cowboys defenders said they had Cunningham talking to himself.
"First, before any questions, let me say this," Cunningham began. "Dallas has a great team. We recognize it, and we have to compliment them because of it. They are a great team, and today, they whipped our butts. They deserve all the credit, and I don't think they get all the credit they deserve."
The Cowboys played Philadelphia's game for nearly two quarters, countering the Eagles' opening-drive, 32-yard field goal Roger Ruzek with Aikman's 1-yard touchdown pass to Derek Tennell, a free-agent acquisition last week making his first Cowboys appearance and catch. Although the Eagles' defense had the Cowboys pinned deep in their territory for most of the half, Dallas never let that 7-3 lead slip.
In fact, they embellished it in the final three minutes of the half, driving 67 yards for Aikman's 6-yard touchdown pass to Novacek with 47 seconds remaining, and then coverting Thomas Everett's recovery of Via Sikahema's fumble on the kickoff into a 20-yard Lin Elliott field goal as time expired for a 17-3 halftime lead.
And when Smith finished off the second half's opening drive with a 23-yard touchdown run on a draw behind Newton and an Irvin downfield block, there seemed no way the Eagles, now trailing 24-7, would resurrect themselves a second consecutive week. They didn't. In fact, the Eagles did not even record a second-half first down until there was less than 14 minutes to play.
By then the Cowboys led 27-3, and moved to a 34-3 lead on Gainer's first touchdown with the Cowboys on a 1-yard run. The Eagles could only save a little face with Cunningham's 18-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Williams with 50 seconds remaining. It was no consolation.
"We play the game on the field," Cowboys free safety James Washington said. "And eventually, no matter what, you've got to play. And fortunately for us, the game was played on Sunday. Not Tuesday."
9- And on the field. Not in the locker room.