Cowboys can take Giant step toward righting 1993 wrongs today

January 02, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The hour of atonement has arrived for the Dallas Cowboys. Beat the New York Giants today at Giants Stadium and the sins of the Cowboys' recent past are forgotten, if not totally forgiven.

Remember the bitter contract dispute that kept Emmitt Smith in limbo the first two games of the season? Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is off the hook with a win today.

Remember Leon Lett's Thanksgiving Day gaffe in the snow that gave the Miami Dolphins an improbable victory? Lett can laugh about it -- although not too loudly -- if he wins today.

Remember the abysmal 27-14 loss to the lowly Atlanta Falcons in November? The Cowboys' defense, sucking it up ever since, finally can exhale with a win today.

Win today and the Cowboys are right where coach Jimmy Johnson wanted to be this time of year: staring at a week off and home-field advantage through the playoffs. If the Cowboys are going to defend their Super Bowl title, this is the road Johnson wanted to take. Only one NFC wild-card team -- Dallas in 1975 -- has reached the Super Bowl.

The road starts with this not-so-small side trip to the frigid New Jersey Meadowlands. The Cowboys and Giants, tied for the NFC East lead at 11-4, meet at 1 p.m. in a game that will deliver division title, playoff bye and home-field advantage to the winner.

"It's as big a game as we've had in the regular season since I've been here with the Cowboys," said Johnson, in his fifth NFL season. "It would wipe away some of the mishaps we had earlier in the season.

"It's almost like having a 2-year-old car with a bunch of dents on it. We're able to win a game and come out with a brand new car from the showroom."

Despite Smith's early holdout and a season-long run of injuries, the Cowboys appear to be in showroom shape. They have navigated the treacherous course Super Bowl champions must travel, one pockmarked by obvious distractions.

Quarterback Troy Aikman, who endured back surgery in the off-season and a strained hamstring in November, points to the heightened level of expectation the team has faced.

"This year, from the time we reported to training camp, that's all everybody wanted to talk about -- going back to the Super Bowl," Aikman said. "I think that's unrealistic. There are a lot of things between the beginning of the season and the Super Bowl that you have to do before you get there."

No distraction, though, was bigger than last summer's stare-down between Jones, the owner, and Smith, the running back. It was Jones' ill-conceived notion the Cowboys could win without Smith, who won the NFL rushing title the past two seasons. Big mistake. After starting 0-2, the Cowboys' locker room nearly imploded from the controversy.

In short order, Jones awarded Smith a four-year, $13.6 million contract, and the Cowboys ran off a seven-game winning streak, including a 31-9 romp over the Giants on Nov. 7.

Smith since has made up lost ground. He leads the NFL with 1,318 yards, 35 ahead of Jerome Bettis of the Los Angeles Rams. If Smith gets his third straight rushing title, he will tie a record held by Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Earl Campbell.

Pursuit of that record figures to obscure any resentment Smith may feel over Aikman's $50 million, eight-year contract signed two weeks ago. Smith told the New York Daily News that while he did not object to the deal Aikman got, he was disturbed because Aikman was allowed to get it without the acrimony that accompanied his own negotiations.

To beat the Giants, the Cowboys will have to overcome the elements and an aroused New York defense that was shut out in Pro Bowl balloting. Cold weather and gusting winds are expected today. The Cowboys, who played in an ice storm in the Thanksgiving loss, are playing down the conditions.

"I just put on an extra T-shirt," said 325-pound guard Nate Newton. "Cold goes to my favor. I'm a fat man, so if it's 30 below zero, they [thinner players] have to dance with the devil. I'll be roasting warm."

Whether the passing game can adjust as easily is uncertain. Two weeks ago, when the Cowboys beat the New York Jets, 28-7, in a frosty dress rehearsal at Giants Stadium, Aikman had three interceptions and Dallas had five turnovers.

Said Newton: "Everybody thinks Troy can't do it in cold weather, but he's got a contract that says he can."

The Giants' defense has given up the fewest points in the NFL, 27 fewer than the Cowboys have allowed. Dallas' defense has been less than impenetrable since losing coordinator Dave Wannstedt to the Chicago Bears after last season. But Johnson believes that has more to do with the relative health of pass-rusher Charles Haley than new coordinator Butch Davis. Haley has a ruptured disk in his back that will need surgery after the season. The Cowboys are hoping he can at least play in nickel situations today.

"I think it has affected our defense all year long, and I don't see that changing," Johnson said. "He was the biggest impact on our defensive team a year ago."

Since Johnson gave the defense a tongue-lashing for its lackluster effort in a 37-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys have given up just 10 points in their past two games. They bring a four-game winning streak to the Meadowlands and a showroom sparkle.

"We have our work cut out for us," Giants coach Dan Reeves said. "If we beat them, in my opinion, we have beaten the best team in football. It is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we are looking forward to."

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