ATLANTA -- These are the moments the Dallas Cowboys crave. Moments when electricity fills the air, when a reputation is on the line.
Moments when history is waiting to be made.
If it's prime-time, it's the right time for the Cowboys.
"We're that type team," said Michael Irvin, the Cowboys' flashy ,, wide receiver. "We live for the big situation.
"When we were 0-2, they said a team never started the season 0-2 and went to the Super Bowl. Instead of panic, we looked around the locker room and said, hey, this is our chance to make history."
The Cowboys (14-4) became the first team to go 0-2 and reach the Super Bowl. Now they're trying to become the fifth team to win back-to-back championships. The last team to repeat was the San Francis co 49ers in 1989 and 1990.
This is also the first time in history the same two teams played in consecutive Super Bowls. A year ago, the Cowboys trampled the Bills, 52-17.
Fearful, perhaps, of a repeat rout, public sentiment had called for different matchup. But Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson says the public got the right one, anyway.
"This is the game that should have been," he said. "I know some people may have said that they wanted to see another game, but in reality, I think everybody wants to see the best.
"And I think both teams proved that they were the best in their respective conferences."
The Bills (14-4) are playing the history game, too. Only their shot at history is a dubious one. Having already lost three straight Super Bowls, they're on the verge of tying the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos as the Super Bowl's losingest teams at 0-4.
What's more, the AFC, where the Bills reign, hasn't won a Super Bowl in 10 years.
History? Twenty-five years after the AFL New York Jets beat the NFL Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in a monumental Super Bowl upset, the Bills are trying to turn back the clock. They go in as 10 1/2 -point underdogs.
All week long, Bills coach Marv Levy has said it will take Buffalo's best game to beat the Cowboys. But he's conceded nothing.
"I don't feel we're physically overmatched," he said. "They have outstanding talent. They have the speediest defense in the National Football League. We've got a lot of speed -- maybe not quite as much, so we have to be sure we're in the right position.
"They have a great running back; so have we. They have a great quarterback; so have we. They have an outstanding offensive line; so have we. Nevertheless, you have to play to the very top level of your capabilities to have a good opportunity to defeat them."
It's a game that could be decided by turnovers. Last year, the Bills coughed up the football a record nine times, five on fumbles, to fuel the Cowboys' romp.
Or it could be decided by running backs -- Emmitt Smith for the Cowboys or Thurman Thomas for the Bills, two of the league's premier players.
Or it could be decided on defense, where both teams have
proven to be vulnerable this season.
It's the matchup at running back, though, that seems the most intriguing.
Smith, the league's Most Valuable Player, has played two postseason games with a separated right shoulder that amazingly has held up under playoff demands. But he clearly is not 100 percent. Can the Cowboys win without him?
"This team can win without me," he said, contemplating the worst. "[But] I want to be there to help them win if I can."
Thomas is coming off the biggest game of his six-year career. He rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns last week when the Bills hammered the Kansas City Chiefs, 30-13, in the AFC championship game.
A temperamental player, he usually is at his best when he's in his worst moods. That was the case a week ago. And after three days of media interrogation, Thomas' mood grew dark and angry. He says he's expecting big things from himself.
"I think I have to have a couple of big plays just about every time I go out on the field in order to keep the ball moving, keep a little momentum, and keep our defense off the field," Thomas said.
Buffalo's Super Bowl past bears him out. In the Bills' 20-19 loss to the New York Giants three years ago, Thomas rushed for 135 yards, averaging 9 a carry. It was the Bills' only winnable Super Bowl.
In the next two title games, when the Bills were blown out, Thomas rushed a total of 21 times for 32 yards, a 1.5 average.
"I think Thomas is the key, if you can control him," said Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith. "He's the all-purpose leader in yards [four of the past five years], so any time a guy is that valuable to an offense, he is the key guy. We need to stop him first . . . Thurman Thomas makes the Buffalo offense go."
The matchup at quarterback leans decisively to the Cowboys. Aikman passed for 273 yards and four touchdowns last year to earn Super Bowl MVP honors. He is recovered from a concussion he suffered in the Cowboys' 38-21 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.
Aikman, who works the short passing game to near-perfection, had only six interceptions during the regular season.
Kelly, on the other hand, had as many interceptions as touchdown passes (18) in the regular season. He's had six interceptions in his past two Super Bowl games, despite getting knocked out of both with injuries.
Kelly believes he will do better this time because his offensive line is healthier than it's been in the previous two Super Bowls.
While the Bills fight a dubious track of history, the Cowboys shoot for the stars. With six previous appearances and a 3-3 record, the Cowboys have played in more Super Bowls than any other team. They can tie the Steelers and 49ers for most Super Bowl wins (four).
"If we win the game," Emmitt Smith said, "people will probably say the Cowboys are one of the greatest franchises in NFL history."
The two teams provide a fascinating contrasts in styles. The Cowboys like to pound away with their running game, using Emmitt Smith and their big offensive line to set up the pass. The Bills, by contrast, are a quick-strike, no-huddle team that likes to get on a roll. They haven't been as explosive this year as they have been in the past because they don't have the deep threat they had with James Lofton, but they're still dangerous if Thurman Thomas has a big day. The Cowboys, though, are much more consistent because their two key players, Troy Aikman and Smith, aren't as up and down as the Bills' two key players, Jim Kelly and Thomas.
Here's another study in contrasts because the Cowboys play a traditional 4-3 while the Bills use a 3-4. The key player on each defense, though, is the right end: Charles Haley of the Cowboys and Bruce Smith of the Bills. They're the pass-rush specialists on each team. Haley has been having problems with his back this week and could be hampered. On the other hand, Smith doesn't have a history of playing well in Super Bowls. Overall, Buffalo has to be worried that its quick but small defense will be overpowered by the big Dallas offensive line. The Cowboys' defense plays a soft zone in the secondary that is designed to take away the big play and is ideally suited to neutralize the no-huddle. It'll force Kelly to be patient and he's not usually at his best when he has to do that. The Cowboys also specialize in forcing turnovers.
These two teams put a lot of emphasis on this area and it's one of the reasons they're both in the Super Bowl. Marv Levy is a former special teams coach who has one of the best special teams players in the league in Steve Tasker. Levy also shored up his kicking game two years ago when he got rid of Scott Norwood and signed Steve Christie. Punter Chris Mohr is a good directional punter. Russell Copeland isn't a burner, but does a solid job as a kick returner. The Cowboys changed kickers after two games and Eddie Murray is much more dependable than Lin Elliott was. Rooke punter John Jett is effective. Kick returner Kevin Williams of the Cowboys can make big plays either way -- he's returned two punts for touchdowns and fumbled three others. Both teams cover kicks well.
Jimmy Johnson is the best coach in football today (at least until Joe Gibbs comes back) and if you don't think he is, just ask him. Humility is not one of his strengths. But you have to give Johnson his due. He prepares his team well and plays the psychological games as well as anybody. The one disadvantage for Johnson this week is that he only gets one week to prepare. Marv Levy, the Buffalo coach, doesn't dazzle anybody with his X's and O's, but he kept the team together through three Super Bowl losses and lets his players be themselves -- on and off the field. He likes to quote Churchill and dropped out of Harvard Law School to become a coach. Unfortunately, so far he's shown that in football nice guys finish second.
Key matchup of the game
SC Bills right end Bruce Smith vs. Cowboys left tackle Mark Tuinei The Bills can't afford to let Aikman sit back there and get in a rhythm. They have to throw him off balance, which means that Smith has to get by Tuinei. Smith likes to think he's the best defensive player in the game, but he's yet to show it in the Super Bowl. This is his chance to do it. If Tuinei can neutralize him, Aikman will have time to pick apart the Buffalo defense.
Three things Dallas must do to win
* Keep Aikman and Smith healthy.
* Force turnovers the way they did last year.
* Stop Thomas.
Three things Buffalo must do to win
* Get a big game from Thomas.
* Stop Smith.
' * Avoid turnovers.
There's no doubt Dallas is the better team, and if the Cowboys are at their best, they'll win. Since this is the 25th anniversary of Super Bowl III, Buffalo can only hope it's time for an upset. There are a few things going the Bills' way. It will be hard for the Cowboys to get nine turnovers the way they did last year. The teams only had a week to prepare, and three of the Cowboys' key players, Aikman, Smith and Haley, aren't in peak physical condition. But that may be grasping at straws for the Bills. The Cowboys are simply too good.