IRVING, Tex. — Gracious champions that they are, the Dallas Cowboys blew off the cobwebs Sunday to give the football world what it has craved since September:
With a 35-9 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the NFC playoffs, the Cowboys did more than merely confirm their reservation for a third consecutive NFC championship game against San Francisco.
They ensured that it will be filled with the usual mystery, intrigue and insults.
The mystery is whether Dallas running back Emmitt Smith will play. He left Sunday's game in the final minutes of the first quarter after another strain of the left hamstring that he injured three weeks ago.
If it took him that long to strengthen himself for only seven carries, how can he be ready again in seven days?
Then again, the Cowboys had a 14-3 lead at the time of his injury. And even though Smith sat on the field with his head in his hands after the eight-yard run up the middle, some club officials say he was simply saving himself for bigger things.
Smith has been known to enjoy being the center of a little suspense. That loud humming and tongue-clicking you hear comes from the 49ers, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
"This did not feel as bad as the first time I hurt it," said Smith, who sat smiling on the sideline without a trainer for most of the game. "I feel very good about my chances."
The intrigue involves whether the Cowboys have a prayer of winning without Smith.
The Cowboys have never been in a playoff game without their three-time rushing champion in his five NFL seasons. They have won only two of the eight games in which he has either carried the ball fewer than 10 times or not played.
"We've got to have him," center Mark Stepnoski said.
The insults came courtesy of--surprise, surprise--guard Nate Newton. "We're fixing to play the Super Bowl champion San Fran . . . uh, world champion San Fran . . . uh, we're just playing the 49ers," the outspoken Newton said. "Everybody already has them winning, but we're fixing to break them off some."
The Cowboys were thrilled about playing the team with the NFL's best record and avenging an earlier loss in San Francisco this season. And Newton is betting the 49ers--who have lost each of the last two title games to the Cowboys--are worried.
"Yesterday, the 49ers were probably sitting on their bus saying, 'C'mon Green Bay, c'mon Green Bay," he said. "We're gonna rock some of those guys. We're going to bust a skull."
They certainly burst a bubble Sunday by whipping the Packers one week after Green Bay defeated the Detroit Lions in a first-round game and predicted better days ahead.
It was the fourth time in two years Dallas has defeated the Packers, including in a playoff game last year.
In a four-quarter span from the second half of their Thanksgiving game through the first half Sunday, the Cowboys scored 64 points against what was once the league's best defense.
"It's hard to tell you how we feel," Packer safety Leroy Butler said. "We've been saying this for the last two years. We can't seem to get past this point."
It's difficult when Troy Aikman, with one touchdown pass and seven interceptions in his previous five games, has the best postseason numbers of his career: 337 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Among his 23 completions in 30 passes was a 94-yard touchdown throw to Alvin Harper that set a league postseason record for longest touchdown of any sort and gave the Cowboys their 14-3 first-quarter lead.
Standing three yards deep in his end zone, Aikman launched a ball that found Harper's hands at the 50-yard line. He outran, then out-juked, beaten cornerback Terrell Buckley before breaking George Teague's attempted arm tackle in the final 10 yards.
Of Harper's 23 postseason catches, nine have been for 35 yards or more. His catches have broken the backs of the Buffalo Bills once and 49ers twice. And now this.
"What can you say about Alvin Harper?" Coach Barry Switzer said. "You can say it's January."
Anybody still wondering how Aikman is 7-0 as a postseason starter?
"I talked to Troy earlier this week and he was really angry," said his agent, Leigh Steinberg. "He can't believe that this team, with all it's been through, finished 12-4 and was still being called a team on the decline."
Three Cowboys--Jay Novacek, Michael Irvin and Harper--finished with more than 100 yards receiving, equaling another NFL postseason record.
For former USC tight end Scott Galbraith--who caught a one-yard pass for the third touchdown of his five-year career--it was all pretty inspirational.
"The way we felt today, your eyes get big, the hair stands up on the back of your head and you say, 'C'mon, just try to play with us. We're the Dallas Cowboys,' " he said.
He was referring to the Cowboys with Emmitt Smith, not reserve back Blair Thomas. The twice-released former first-round bust scored twice, but averaged only three yards per carry and looked slow and soft.
But the Cowboys don't expect to see Thomas. They know Smith. They know the 49ers.
"This war we will win. . . . We need him for the war next week," Irvin said. "I'm sure he'll play. He'll play."
And with him, promised Irvin for a second time, the Cowboys will win. His promise wasn't as strong as his televised pledge earlier Sunday, nor former coach Jimmy Johnson's guarantee of victory last season.
But it's Cowboy-49er week, so anything goes. "If anybody wants to know are we going to beat San Francisco, I say, 'yeah, we are going to beat San Francisco,' " Irvin said. "We can't go in there with any other attitude."
He looked at the media horde surrounding him and added, "You guys can take that and run with it."
That they will, perhaps with more speed and strength than Smith.
Said Switzer as he passed his running back in the hallway late Sunday afternoon: "You've got all year to rest that thing, big boy. All year."