EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Dallas Cowboys' full-scale assault on the NFL continued with vigor here yesterday.
There were a few acrobatic defensive plays, a spectacular catch or two and more than a little bad blood.
The bad blood surfaced after the Cowboys punished the New York Jets, 28-7, at Giants Stadium to clinch a playoff berth.
Sparks flew as Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson and Jets coach Bruce Coslet walked through the tunnel under the stadium to their respective locker rooms. Johnson, walking slightly ahead of Coslet, flailed his arms and gestured animatedly, even as Dallas owner Jerry Jones tried to calm him down. Coslet was obviously agitated as well.
"Oh, someone said something about blitzing with about eight or nine minutes to go in the ballgame," Johnson said later, composed but still upset.
"Someone needs to pass me a note or give me the rules when we are supposed to blitz or when we can't blitz. I don't know. We just try and win ballgames. . . . Again, I haven't read the manual yet as far as what defense we're supposed to play at the end of a game."
Johnson didn't quite have the particulars correct. What bothered Coslet was a double safety blitz -- with the Cowboys up by 21 points and less than five minutes remaining -- that left quarterback Boomer Esiason with bruised ribs.
"Let me say the right words," Coslet said. "I was a little perturbed he would double safety blitz leading 28-7 and try to knock Boomer out of the game. I didn't mind him blitzing Browning [Nagle] when we were down there trying to score [in the final two minutes]."
In what ranked as one of the NFL's uglier games of the season, the Cowboys kept the Jets out of the end zone in those closing minutes with an unusual combination: three pass-interference penalties and a holding infraction.
"The way we looked at it, we were being real aggressive," said Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith. "There were two minutes left in the game. We didn't have to let them in the end zone. I saw three good aggressive plays in the end zone."
Smith and teammate Larry Brown came up with two great defensive plays earlier in the game. Brown, the right cornerback, tipped a pass away from Jets receiver Rob Moore at the 5-yard line with immaculate timing late in the first half while the game was still scoreless.
Smith, a first-round draft choice a year ago, delivered the clinching when he intercepted a short Esiason pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
The Cowboys (10-4) overcame a five-turnover performance to keep pressure on the first-place New York Giants (10-3) in the NFC East. When it wasn't Smith or Brown who tormented the Jets, it was Michael Irvin making some tantalizing catches.
Irvin caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Troy Aikman, one on a diving stab of a 42-yard throw and the other on a short 3-yard curl pattern. Both times he beat Jets cornerback Eric Thomas, who had dared to challenge Irvin and the Cowboys in the newspapers.
Of Irvin, Thomas had said: "He's a very talented receiver, but he's not great by any means. I don't think he's reached that lofty spot where Jerry Rice is. I think his strength is is competitiveness."
Irvin didn't exactly consider it a compliment.
"When Eric was saying how good we're not supposed to be, I knew I'd get some man-to-man coverage," Irvin said.
Six catches and 91 yards later, Irvin had won the mano-a-mano, )) and effectively silenced Thomas.
"The [deep] pass to Irvin, Eric had pretty good coverage on it," Coslet said. "It was a great play by a great player and a great quarterback. Let's not take anything away from the Cowboys. The story of this game was we didn't really do well on first down. We put too much pressure on ourselves, plus the midpoint of the game, we can't have those turnovers."
The Jets (8-6) had seen this game as a chance to validate their playoff credentials. Instead, they extended a touchdown drought 17 quarters before Brad Baxter bulled into the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
Esiason hit 21 of 37 passes for 194 yards and one touchdown before leaving with bruised ribs.
Aikman had a curious game. Although he completed 21 of 27 for 252 yards and two touchdowns, he also threw three interceptions. That matched his interception total for his previous 315 passes this season.
Your performance, Troy?
"I don't know what to call it," he said. "It had its high points, and it had its low points."
One of the highs was a nifty 20-yard scramble Aikman made on third-and-15 in the third quarter. He put a move on Ronnie Lott that left the veteran safety grasping at air.
"I think Ronnie was expecting me to slide," Aikman said. "I knew if I did, I'd come up short [of the first down]. I tried to give him the best move I had, and you all witnessed it."