In a larger sense, though, the Cowboys are really playing against the standard they set the past two years. They're also playing for a place in NFL history.
Their 16 regular-season games were just a warm-up. This is the real beginning of their quest -- their bid to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls.
If the Cowboys play their game, they will win. They proved they're better than the Packers in the playoffs last season and as recently as Thanksgiving Day. And the Packers are without their best player, wide receiver Sterling Sharpe.
But the Cowboys have played their game only at times this season. They never seemed to recover from a mid-November loss to San Francisco that gave the 49ers the top seed in the playoffs.
The Cowboys were 12-4, but they lost two of their last three games.
They also lost Erik Williams, the best right offensive tackle in pro football, who was injured in an auto accident. Their two key players, running back Emmitt Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman, have been injured at times.
Smith missed the final regular-season game with a pulled hamstring. Aikman, who has presumably recovered from a knee injury, has thrown one touchdown pass and seven interceptions in the last five games.
Then there's the X-factor, the fact that the man with the hair spray, Jimmy Johnson, will be in a television studio instead of on the sidelines.
Johnson was a hands-on coach who pushed all the right buttons. In his place is Barry Switzer, who has a completely different approach. He has pushed no buttons. He has the quaint notion that players win games.
The players, naturally, tend to like Switzer's laid-back approach.
"Under Barry, everyone is responsible for their own actions," tight end Jay Novacek said. "Barry allows us to be like that. I don't think you should be told how to motivate yourself. Ultimately, it's up to the individuals to play like a team, regardless of who is doing the yelling.
"What Jimmy did for those teams was right, because we won twoSuper Bowls. But who's to say it would be right now? Then, like now, there is something inside the individual that has to click."
Switzer insists he's not concerned about the comparisons with Johnson.
"Hey, I'm not into proving anything to anybody," Switzer said.
If the Cowboys don't win, though, Switzer will have to live with the people -- Johnson will be first in line -- who'll say they missed Johnson.
If the Cowboys do win, owner Jerry Jones, who bought out Johnson's contract for $2 million, will be the first to gloat and say they didn't need Johnson to win.
In fact, Jones was ready to gloat before the playoffs started.
"The stage is set for us to show something to the world," Jones said. "By going down to our knees, as we have during some moments of 1994, and then rising back up and busting Green Bay or San Francisco or whoever, it will make it more impressive."
Meanwhile, Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin was the one doing the guaranteeing last week.
"We will go to the Super Bowl," Irvin told Terry Bradshaw of Fox Sports. "We will get our third straight. We will do something that's never been done before."
Said Aikman: "I don't think this team gets the credit it deserves. We've had to overcome more this year than any year since I've been here. This is a proud team. This is our chance to put a stamp on things and accomplish something no other team has."
It's fitting that the Cowboys start the playoffs against the VTC Packers, the only team to win three straight NFL titles. The Packers have done it twice -- in 1929, '30 and '31, before the league had playoffs, and 1965, '66 and '67.
Since the Super Bowl wasn't invented until 1966 after the NFL merged with the AFL, the Packers didn't get three straight Super Bowls (they did win the first two). But they did beat the Cowboys in the playoffs in the second and third years of their 1965-67 run, including the Ice Bowl in 1967.
Now it's the Cowboys' turn to try to earn a place in the NFL history books.
NOTE: A woman has accused Irvin of assaulting her in a nightclub parking lot 13 months ago. Heidi Marie Thomas, 19, of Plano, Texas, filed a complaint with Dallas police Friday. She also filed a lawsuit against Irvin on Wednesday, seeking $5 million in ,, damages in the alleged Dec. 12, 1993, incident. "This is an absolutely ridiculous charge," Irvin said. "There will be a proper resolution to this matter."