Smith hurt in Dallas' 24-16 win RB pulls hamstring, but his return for playoffs is likely

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- The Dallas Cowboys got a win they didn't need but lost a player they need as much as any last night at the Superdome.

Dallas beat New Orleans, 24-16, to end the Saints' marginal playoff hopes, but Emmitt Smith's departure late in the third quarter was the exit that worried the Cowboys.

Smith suffered a pulled left hamstring and won't play Saturday in the regular-season finale against the New York Giants but is expected to be ready for the divisional playoffs.

"His attitude is, he thinks he'll be back this week, and obviously we won't consider that," coach Barry Switzer said. "The doctors don't think it's severe. Time will tell."

Smith carried 19 times for 74 yards and scored once.

On his final carry, he started left, cut back through a hole to the right, then appeared to almost freeze in mid-air as his left leg locked up. He was helped to the bench by trainers and carted to the locker room.

"That was frustration on my face, not pain," he said. "I was ticked off."

Dallas' other two touchdowns came on interception returns. Left end Tony Tolbert opened the scoring with a 54-yard return, and linebacker Darrin Smith picked off a deflected pass in the fourth quarter and ran 13 yards to score.

For Tolbert and Smith, it was their first NFL interceptions and touchdowns. Smith saved the game with another interception minutes later.

"We had some great individual efforts," Switzer said.

New Orleans (6-9) narrowed Dallas' lead to 24-16 on a 4-yard run by Derek Brown with 5:37 remaining, but the Saints' final possession ended with Darrin Smith's second interception.

After Emmitt Smith's injury, Blair Thomas filled in but gained only 7 yards on six carries. Lincoln Coleman, who has been the backup running back most of the year, was on the Cowboys' inactive list.

The victory raised Dallas' record to 12-3. On Saturday, the Cowboys have a chance to become the first team to sweep all eight NFC East games, although their playoff position is set. They will be off on the wild-card weekend and will play host to a game Jan. 7 or 8.

Dallas' offense didn't produce a touchdown until the opening drive of the second half. It was a classic grind-it-out march with Smith carrying on nine of the 16 plays. His 1-yard run boosted Dallas' lead to 17-6 and lifted his season touchdown total to 22. That tied him for fourth on the NFL's all-time list, two behind John Riggins' 1982 total.

The Saints responded with a solid drive but had to settle for Morten Andersen's 29-yard field goal, which cut the lead to 17-9.

The Saints later blocked a short Chris Boniol field-goal attempt to take over at their 9-yard line. But Jim Everett's first-down pass bounced off the hand of Brown into the arms of Darrin Smith, who beat Brown to the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. That made it a 24-9 game with 9:17 to play.

In the first half, there was a great play from Tolbert, a saving tackle from Larry Allen and an abundance of gifts, particularly from the officials.

The Cowboys benefited from a pass interference call on Saints safety Vince Buck and a noncall against Clayton Holmes near the goal line. It was a tough half for Troy Aikman, who was intercepted twice after completing his first seven passes.

"Are they concerned about Everett?" Switzer said when asked about Aikman. "Those things can happen when you put the ball in the air."

The Saints took the opening kick and drove to the Dallas 41 before Tolbert read a screen pass, drifted over into coverage and picked off Everett's pass meant for Mario Bates. Tolbert raced 54 yards down the left side for his first NFL touchdown.

Andersen missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt midway through the second quarter, but linebacker Darion Conner intercepted a deflected Aikman pass moments later and ran 56 yards to the Dallas 15 before being hauled down by Allen, a 330-pound tackle. Andersen's 21-yard field goal made it 7-3.

Three plays from scrimmage later, Aikman tried to hit Michael Irvin on a sideline route that cornerback Jimmy Spencer read perfectly. He made the pickoff and appeared to run 36 yards for a touchdown but was ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the 26. Everett went deep for Quinn Early on the first play, but the pass was broken up by Holmes. Replays indicated Holmes interfered with Early, but there was no call.

After tight end Wesley Walls dropped what would have been TC touchdown, the Saints settled for a 32-yard field goal by Andersen with 50 seconds left. But when Kevin Williams returned the kickoff to the Dallas 47, that gave Aikman time to move down the field for Boniol's 30-yard field goal and a 10-6 lead on the final play of the half.

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