Long road back may lead Dallas to Super Bowl


IRVING, Texas -- Bill Bates pondered the question.

No, he would not comment on the Dallas Cowboys' chances of winning the NFC East. But he would offer this bit of insight:

"Whoever wins our division usually goes to the Super Bowl. Not just to the playoffs, but all the way," the nine-year veteran safety said. "I'm not saying that's going to be us, but anything can happen."

Perhaps it is premature for the Cowboys to be thinking Super Bowl, or even playoffs, for that matter. After all, coach Jimmy Johnson has yet to have his first winning season in the NFL.

Then again, perhaps not. The team did make a big leap last season, going 7-9 and narrowly missing the playoffs after a 1-15 season inJohnson's rookie year.

"Sure, our schedule is tougher this year," Bates said. "The division is tougher, but we're also better. This is the best team we've had since Jimmy came here."

But a division title? The Cowboys will find out if they are legitimate contenders tomorrow night in their home opener against the Washington Redskins. The game marks the first "Monday Night Football" appearance for Dallas since Johnson took over in 1989.

"I think we're a much improved team," Johnson said. "But as far as winning the division or going to the Super Bowl, I think it's a little early for thinking about that."

The Cowboys' revolving door for players during Johnson's first two seasons appears to have stopped. The offensive line seems solidified, as do the receivers.

"It's good to finally look down the line and see the same faces week after week," offensive lineman Kevin Gogan said.

Most Cowboys wouldn't speculate on a division title. Others weren't so reticent, though.

"I always think we're going to win," Gogan said. "That's the attitude we have to have. But obviously no one is going to go undefeated, and this thing is going to be a dogfight to the end. But I like our chances."

The Cowboys' chances got better last week, when two NFC East starting quarterbacks went out with injuries -- the Philadelphia Eagles' Randall Cunningham and the Phoenix Cardinals' Timm Rosenbach.

"I would say that makes our chances a little better," said defensive tackle Russell Maryland, the Cowboys' No. 1 pick in this year's draft. "But we've got to go out and play our best no matter who is in there."

The Cowboys said they are wary of the Redskins, against whom Johnson picked up his first pro victory.

"I was all excited about our win [26-14 over Cleveland in the opener]," said linebacker Jack Del Rio. "Then I went home and saw what they were doing to Detroit [a 45-0 Redskins victory], and it kind of took some of the wind out of my sails."

"This is a big game for us," quarterback Troy Aikman said. "It's on Monday night in front of a home crowd. If we could come out of this with a win, it would really set the tone for the rest of the year."

I= And, this season, who knows how long that year will last?

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