DALLAS -- He talked about the Atlanta Falcons, the problems they present and the division title that awaits the Dallas Cowboys if they win Monday night. But 40 hours later, the pain of Washington's 20-17 victory still dominated Jimmy Johnson's emotions.
At his news conference yesterday, Johnson explained why he considers this his most difficult defeat since Miami's Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State cost the Hurricanes a national title.
"I don't think any loss has ever pained me as much as losing the national championship in 1986. I honestly felt we had the best college football team that ever played the game," he said. "We won the next year, went undefeated the next year, but it really wasn't the best team.
"We're starting to be good here. When you give your heart and soul to something that you're striving for and you lose it, it hurts."
Johnson said his post-game depression would be gone in plenty of time to prepare for the Falcons. But it was clear that he had not yet begun to fully concentrate on stopping Atlanta's dangerous four-wide receiver offense.
"Anybody that has been around me understands that I have a difficult time losing something I have my heart set on," Johnson said. "It's not that I have a difficulty with losing. I golf in the summer, lose all the time and it doesn't bother me a bit. I pay my Nassau and go on.
"Some people approach everything with a 40-hour work week effort. 'Give me my check, I'll do my job.' I don't approach coaching the Cowboys that way. If I ever get to the point that I do approach coaching the Cowboys in that manner, I shouldn't be coaching the Cowboys."
Owner Jerry Jones, who is the reason Johnson coaches the Cowboys, has seen what losing does to him. "I think there have been plenty of coaches with winning teams that haven't reacted that way. But that's his way. I like that," he said.
"Bob Lilly told me that's the first time he ever felt like throwing something through the television set."
The players showed less emotion as they returned to practice, but there is no doubt they had similar troubles in dealing with the defeat.
"It's hard because we had it right there in our hands," said wide receiver Alvin Harper, whose hands weren't the problem Sunday. "Those are the toughest kind to lose. You're on the sidelines, and you feel like you've got the game won. Then crazy things happen."
Quarterback Troy Aikman was at the center of the craziest play, but he made it clear yesterday that rehashing his end-zone fumble for the rest of the week was not his idea of a good time.
"The longer we sit here crying about losing to Washington, the harder it's going to be to get ready for Atlanta," he said. "I see his [Johnson's] pain, I see my pain, I see everybody's pain. It's not fun losing. Fortunately, we're 11-3. I'm not going to let this loss distract from what we can accomplish."
The strangest thing of all about Sunday's loss is that it could prove meaningless in determining Dallas' playoff position.
As long as the Cowboys at least tie one of their last two games or the Eagles lose or tie one of their last two, Dallas will be crowned champion of the NFC East. The Cowboys also will earn a first-round bye and play their first playoff game at home under those circumstances.