When they didn't, showing little of the resolve that carried them into the second round of the NFC playoffs, the Lions turned the anticipated tossup into a 38-6 blowout before 78,290 fans who got louder as the game wore on.
The victory, the Lions' seventh in a row, moved them into the conference championship game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday at 4 p.m. in RFK Stadium. The winner advances to the Super Bowl. Washington beat the Lions in the season opener, 45-0.
"Let's hope we play better than we did last time," Lions coach Wayne Fontes said. "No one is going to say we have a chance. But people have been saying that about us all year."
They were nothing less than overpowering yesterday, as they played their first home playoff game -- and scored their first postseason win -- since 1957. They led by seven after four minutes, by 11 at halftime and blew the game open in the third quarter.
Quarterback Erik Kramer was accurate against a defense stacked to stop running back Barry Sanders, missing only nine of 38 passes while throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns. The defense not only kept the Cowboys out of the end zone but also came up with the game's biggest play.
NTC "Erik Kramer stood tall today," Fontes said. "We had a hunch they would stack the line. We practiced our passing game all week. And what can I say about the defense? They're just playing super right now. I just hope we can stay focused like this."
The Cowboys lost their focus and everything else yesterday. They also had won six straight, but unraveled in the hostile
atmosphere. Their pass defense was shredded, and their offense couldn't consistently sustain drives.
Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson tried to spark the team by pulling starting quarterback Steve Beuerlein late in the second quarter, but Troy Aikman was ineffectual in his return. Between them, they threw for 205 yards.
"The taste is not very good right now," Johnson said, "and we'll look to improve in the off-season to be a better team. We got exposed a little bit on our pass defense. These things happen. A team gets on a roll, and it just snowballs. Still, our guys did much better than expected this year."
Any overachieving stopped with the opening kickoff yesterday. The Lions built their lead by controlling things from the outset. They held the Cowboys without a first down on the first series, then drove 68 yards to a touchdown in 129 seconds, taking a 7-0 lead.
Completions of 11, 13 and 13 yards -- to three receivers -- set up the score, a 31-yard pass from Kramer to Willie Green. The noise in the Silverdome was ear-rattling.
"I heard that," Fontes said, "and I said, 'Hey, if the fans keep that up, we're going to win.' It's not easy in an environment like this when you're the road team. Gosh, I love playing in this dome."
The Cowboys did settle down late in the first quarter, moving out from their 5 with two Beuerlein passes to Michael Irvin, good for 35 yards, and an 18-yard run by Emmitt Smith. Ken Willis kicked a 28-yard field goal when the drive stalled.
When two penalties ended Detroit's next series, the Cowboys appeared to take the momentum. But then the Lions' defense struck the game's biggest blow: Beuerlein badly overthrew rookie Alvin Harper and was intercepted by cornerback Melvin Jenkins, who returned the ball 41 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
"It was something I spotted from watching film," Jenkins said. "I ,, saw from his break which route he was running, and I just beat him to the spot. I stayed on his outside the whole way. I knew he was coming my way. The ball came right to me."
The Lions were in control the rest of the way. The Cowboys almost made a move on the next series, driving to the Lions' 10, but Beuerlein didn't see an open Irvin across the middle on third down, and Willis kicked another field goal. It was Beuerlein's last play.
"It didn't really make any difference which quarterback was in there," said Lions linebacker Chris Spielman. "We're a real confident defense right now."
The Lions began rolling again late in the third quarter, driving 80 yards in seven plays for a touchdown, with 62 yards coming on five straight passes. Ater Aikman fumbled the snap at his 27 on the first play of the next series, the Lions scored again and suddenly had a 25-point lead. It was celebration time.
"I go back to the last game of my rookie year here, when we were playing Tampa Bay and getting beer and Coke and pizza tossed on us," Spielman said. "We got booed off the field, and deservedly so. It's nice to make the people happy."
Said Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown: "We were all in a zone today. Erik was, the line was, the defense was. It was a special feeling out there."
The NFC championship game histories of the Redskins and Lions, who will play for the conference title next week (year indicates season; before 1970, NFL championship):
1936 Packers 21, *Redskins 6
1937 Redskins 28, Bears 21
1940 Bears 73, Redskins 0
1942 Redskins 14, Bears 6
1943 Bears 41, Redskins 21
1945 Rams 15, Redskins 14
1972 Redskins 26, Cowboys 3
1982 Redskins 31, Cowboys 17
1983 Redskins 24, 49ers 21
1986 Giants 17, Redskins 0