Cowboys clinch memory in Georgia Dome debut Smith leads way to first-round bye


ATLANTA -- The Dallas Cowboys traveled east to beat a team from the West and, thus, clinched the NFC East last night, making their first journey to the Georgia Dome a memorable one.

Dallas broke open a close game in the opening minutes of the second half, pouncing on a pair of fumbles and swiftly converting them into touchdowns in a 41-17 rout of the Atlanta Falcons.

The victory clinched the East for the Cowboys (12-3) and earned them a week off following Sunday's game with Chicago. The Cowboys will face Minnesota in the first playoff game if the Vikings, champions of the Central Division, win their wild-card game. Otherwise, Dallas will play the winner of the other wild-card matchup.

"We know not many teams get to the Super Bowl without a bye," said quarterback Troy Aikman, who was 12 the last time the Cowboys played in a Super Bowl, in January 1979.

There were plenty of stars for Dallas with Aikman completing 18 of 21 passes, three for touchdowns, and safety Thomas Everett recovering two fumbles. But Emmitt Smith stole the headlines with a 132-yard rushing performance after halftime. His 174 yards for the night gave him his second highest NFL total, and he broke the club record he had shared with Dan Reeves by scoring his 17th and 18th touchdowns.

"This is something we've worked hard for all year," Smith said, "but we can't stop now."

There was no stopping Smith and the Cowboys last night. A 253-yard first half gave Dallas a 20-10 lead at the intermission. Atlanta took the third-quarter kickoff and moved to near midfield before Steve Broussard fumbled and Larry Brown recovered at the Falcons' 48-yard line. Two runs by Smith gained 25 yards before Aikman threw a 23-yard strike to Alvin Harper for the touchdown and a 27-10 lead.

"Troy Aikman just did a fantastic job," coach Jimmy Johnson said. "He just put it right on the money."

The Georgia Dome crowd of 67,036 that never got the chance to be too rowdy grew even quieter after Harper's touchdown. Within a few minutes, many headed for the exits as the Falcons headed for their ninth loss.

Deion Sanders fumbled the kickoff after Harper's touchdown when he was hit by Vinson Smith and bumped into teammate Charles Washington. Everett's second recovery of the night gave the Cowboys possession at the Atlanta 29. On the next play, Smith took a pitch to the right side, broke free from linebacker Jesse Tuggle's grasp and ran 29 yards down the left side of the field for the Cowboys' single-season touchdown record.

Smith added another 29-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter as he pulled within 5 yards of Pittsburgh's Barry Foster for the NFL rushing lead.

Where the second half was all Smith, the first belonged to Aikman. Good coverage forced him to bounce his first pass of the game on the turf, but he hit a career-high 13 straight before missing Michael Irvin on a deep pass. He finished the half with 15 completions in 17 attempts for 196 yards.

"We're proud of this football team, from where they've come," said Johnson. "Winning the East is an accomplishment, but we've still got a lot of football left to be played."

"For me this is really gratifying ... coming back and hearing all the boos in the stands, you know, people hate me," said the Cowboys' Tony Casillas, a former Falcon. "So I just like the way the scenario ended."

Losing coach Jerry Glanville said, "We turned the ball over three times and we didn't get any turnovers. You've got to take some away."

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