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Cowboys Hoping to Exploit a Window of Opportunity : NFC: Aikman is on target and Smith is rested and ready enough as Super Bowl champions go against the 10-7 Packers.


IRVING, Tex. — Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman went on "The Late Show With David Letterman" last Tuesday and threw passes at moving taxis on an icy New York street. Dallas Coach Jimmy Johnson was not amused.

"Too bad they cut his segment short," Johnson said, "because he was going to talk about my fish."

Dale Hellestrae, the Cowboys' deep snapper, also thought Aikman's performance was a little lame--and proved it by firing off a snap into the passenger window of a moving truck in the parking lot of the team's practice facility.

"Nobody really knows how many takes it took for Troy to nail his throws," Hellestrae said. "Let the record show that I drilled mine on the first try."

A sprightly bunch, these Cowboys, heavy favorites to defeat the Green Bay Packers today at Texas Stadium in an NFC divisional playoff game.

"The players are loose. The coach, too," Johnson said after Thursday's practice.

Asked if it meant anything that Aikman had flown to New York on his day off to appear on the Letterman show, Packer Coach Mike Holmgren said, "I would say it shows that they're a very confident team."

And why not?

The Cowboys begin the playoffs with home-field advantage, the healing benefits of a week off and the erratic Packers as an opponent.

Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champion, defeated Green Bay in early October, 36-14.

"They've got to be overconfident," Packer safety Leroy Butler said. "They won the Super Bowl. We're coming to their place. They beat us, 36-14. They should be (overconfident). If I was them, I would be."

Wishful thinking, the Cowboys say.

"Like I've always said, every week is a different week," running back Emmitt Smith said. "You know they're going to come in here ready to play. And we've been in situations where we've lost games we know we should have won. So I don't think we ever underestimate anybody."

Smith isn't fully recovered from the separated shoulder he suffered two weeks ago in his 168-yard effort against the New York Giants, but the injury shouldn't limit his role today--a bad sign for the Packers.

The Green Bay defense, worn down by injuries, has allowed three backs to rush for 100 yards or more in the last four weeks. That two of them are named Scottie Graham and Derrick Lynch doesn't speak well for the Packers' chances of stopping Smith, the league's most valuable player.

"Anything I say about (the injuries on defense) will look like an excuse, but the simple fact is, we have been injured and have been playing with some different people in there," Holmgren said. "That has an effect. But so what? We've got to play."

Smith carried only 13 times for 71 yards in the Dallas-Green Bay game Oct. 3, but the Cowboys didn't need a career day from him. Dallas won because Aikman had his best passing day of the season, completing 18 of 23 for 317 yards, and the Cowboy defense limited Packer wide receiver Sterling Sharpe to four catches for 31 yards.

"That was the one game this year that I thought we were handled pretty well," Holmgren said. "When we got on our heels, it was over. They put it to us pretty good."

Stopping Sharpe, the only player in NFL history who has caught 100 or more passes in consecutive seasons, is the first priority of any team facing the Packers, and the Cowboys must hope they can do it twice in one season.

The Cowboys took Sharpe out of the earlier game by hitting him at the line of scrimmage and using double coverage downfield, a luxury Dallas could afford because of Green Bay's mediocre running game.

If Aikman is the picture of consistency this season--he has thrown only six interceptions--Packer quarterback Brett Favre is at the other end of the scale.

Favre, 24, threw for 3,303 yards and 19 touchdowns during the regular season. Unfortunately for the Packers, he also gave up 24 interceptions to lead the league.

Against the Detroit Lions on the final Sunday of the regular season, Favre threw four interceptions and the Packers lost, 30-20, missing their chance to clinch the NFC Central title.

But the young quarterback wasn't rattled in the wild-card playoff game against Detroit last Saturday at the Pontiac Silverdome. He found Sharpe for three touchdown passes, including a 40-yarder to win the game with 55 seconds remaining.

The Packers can only hope that Favre and Sharpe can work their magic two weeks in a row.

Or that Aikman left his game on the Letterman set.

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