IRVING, Texas -- There was yet another set of crutches in the Dallas Cowboys' locker room after their trashing of the New York Giants Monday night. And with those crutches came an offering of perspective.
"After all we have been through in the last two years, this is God testing you," said Nate Newton, the Cowboys' offensive guard and unofficial conscience. "This is God seeing how you're going to stand up."
". . . and I think we're going to stand up just fine."
The rest of the NFL hopes otherwise as the Cowboys confront an undeniably serious threat -- long overdue, opponents would say -- to their rule of the four-down football world: a run of injuries.
The latest was a knee injury suffered by Alvin Harper, the big-play receiver, who left the locker room on crutches late Monday night. Originally thought to be a torn ligament, a season-ending injury, it was diagnosed yesterday as a sprain. "I'm thrilled," Troy Aikman said. "It's the first good injury news we've had around here in a long time."
Harper was the second hallmark of the Cowboys offense to go down. The first was Erik Williams, the best right tackle in football, who tore up his knee in a car wreck a few weeks ago.
"How is it going to affect the 49er game?" he repeated. "When you lose great players? When you have to play second-teamers? The 49ers know all about it. They've had a lot of injuries. Now we do."
The Cowboys still have Aikman, Emmitt Smith and their stake in the ground as the best team in the league, but these high-impact injuries are bringing them back to the 49ers and Eagles and other wannabes. Not that anyone feels sorry for them. In winning the past two Super Bowls, the Cowboys didn't lose a single player of major significance to injury. That qualifies as a miracle in the violent NFL.
"The truth is we've been pretty fortunate," offensive guard Mark Tuinei said.
Switzer's predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, probably would have fined Tuinei for such a remark. Johnson, a man of rare arrogance, always said he didn't believe in luck, that you made your own luck with hard work and preparation, blah blah.
But the truth is that Johnson's Super teams were blessed with good fortune, the opposite of which is losing Erik Williams for the season on some highway somewhere and coming close to losing Alvin Harper for the season on a pointless Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half of a mismatch.
"Every team has injuries," Tuinei said. "So, these are our injuries, and we have to deal with them. I think we'll be OK."
They needn't worry about most teams, as Monday night's game demonstrated. The truth is that there are few teams capable of taking advantage of the Cowboys' personnel losses. The 49ers. The Eagles, maybe. That's about it. (Don't even mention any AFC teams.)
The 49ers started slowly this season, with a series of injured offensive linemen, and spent one Sunday getting hammered by the Eagles. But they've won four straight now and seem to be coming together. Sunday's game means more to them, no question. After losing to the Cowboys in the NFC championship game the past two years, they pretty much have to win to convince themselves that they're legitimate threats.
"They've got a little chip on their shoulders when it comes to us," Tuinei said.
The 49ers have added Deion Sanders and former Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton Jr. since last season's title game, which the Cowboys won, 38-12. The Cowboys, through free agency and injuries, have lost three of the five starting offensive linemen in past season's Super Bowl (Williams, Kevin Gogan, John Gesek) plus Norton and defensive lineman Tony Casillas. If anything, these circumstances have opened a window of opportunity for the 49ers.
But then, the Cowboys don't have to prove anything Sunday in San Francisco. The Cowboys, who have done their proving in the past two playoff seasons, just have to win a likely rematch with the 49ers in January. And no matter how much their injuries stack up, they remain the chalk choice. They have Aikman and Smith, two of the best big-game players the NFL has seen in years. They have a young, aggressive, injury-free defense that seems to improve every week. They have Irvin.
"It's hard to maintain the same level of high play year after year," Tuinei said, "but we're doing a pretty good job of it, injuries and all. This is a pretty special team."