Chargers, Cowboys repeat their success Dallas' 35-9 rout of Green Bay sets up S.F. rematch


IRVING, Texas -- The lights are ready to be dimmed. The curtain is ready to go up.

It's finally time for the NFL's biggest show this season.

Unfortunately, an understudy may wind up playing one of the leading roles. It could be football's version of "Hello Dolly" without Carol Channing.

The two-time defending champion Dallas Cowboys set up their long-awaited clash with the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in the NFC title game by crushing the Green Bay Packers, 35-9, in a divisional playoff game yesterday.

The Cowboys-49ers game is the one-game season the NFL has been waiting for since the first day of training camp. The winner will be heavily favored to give the NFC its 11th straight victory in the Super Bowl in Miami on Jan. 29.

Yet the game may lose some of its luster if Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith isn't able to go at full speed because of his tender left hamstring.

Smith, who sat out the final game of the season with the ailment, aggravated the injury on his seventh carry late in the first quarter.

Smith said it was a "good question" if he could have played more if the Cowboys had been trailing. Because they were already ahead 14-3, the Cowboys didn't try to answer it and held Smith out the rest of the game. His status is uncertain for next week.

The Cowboys didn't need Smith against the Packers because quarterback Troy Aikman passed for 337 yards and two touchdowns, including the longest touchdown pass in NFL playoff history -- a 94-yard strike to Alvin Harper.

A team that had been out of sync much of the season showed once again that it can turn it on in the playoffs.

"We needed that," said Barry Switzer, who was coaching his first playoff game. "There is a difference [in the playoffs]. I got to experience it. They showed me. I asked them to show me, and they did. The first half was without question the best we played all year."

When he was asked about the team's emotion, he screamed with a smile, "They played with a lot of emotion today!"

He lowered his voice and said: "They spilled their bucket out there. I hope they didn't lose all of it. They were ready to go. We came down the ramp, those guys wanted to play. They wanted to demonstrate some things that they could do."

But they did it against the Packers. The 49ers are a different story, especially if the Cowboys don't have Smith -- and Switzer didn't seem to be that optimistic they would.

"If you ask me if Emmitt's going to play . . . he didn't play in three weeks the last time he injured it, so how could you expect him to play this week? It's a frustrating thing to have to deal with it, but we're going to show up and I kind of like the role of being an underdog," Switzer said.

Said Smith: "It's very frustrating. I can't imagine anything more frustrating."

But he sounded more optimistic than Switzer.

"I always feel good about my chances [of playing]. . . . We'll have to re-evaluate it tomorrow to see how stiff it gets and how tight it is," Smith said.

He said the injury didn't feel as bad as it did when he first injured it in New Orleans three weeks ago. He said he felt a twinge and a "grabbing sensation" in the left hamstring.

Smith's backup, Blair Thomas, gained 10 yards on eight carries in the first half, although he finished with 70 yards on 23 carries.

The Cowboys are the sixth team to win back-to-back Super Bowls and the third then to make it to the conference championship game (the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976 and San Francisco in 1990 were the other two), but none of the two-time champions has made it back to the Super Bowl.

Smith's injury isn't the Cowboys' only problem. Three offensive linemen, Mark Tuinei (back), Larry Allen (ankle) and Nate Newton (hamstring), are playing hurt.

"The most important guy on our football team will be Kevin O'Neill, our trainer. We're a really, really, beat-up football team right now," Switzer said.

The Cowboys were too good for the Packers, a team they beat in the playoffs last year and again on Thanksgiving Day. They've beaten the Packers four times in Dallas the last two years.

"I would love to have a chance to play the Cowboys in December in Green Bay," coach Mike Holmgren said.

The way the Cowboys played, it might not have mattered.

While Charles Haley disrupted their passing game by rushing quarterback Brett Favre and keeping him off balance, the Cowboys blocked Reggie White to protect Aikman.

It took less than 12 minutes for the Cowboys to prove they were better.

Spurning a 55-yard field goal attempt or a gamble for the first down on fourth-and-two from the Cowboys' 38, Holmgren called for a punt that went out of bounds at the Cowboys' 6.

The bad field position didn't hurt the Cowboys.

On first down, Aikman went deep to Harper, who easily beat Terrell Buckley and went 94 yards for the touchdown. Newton helped by blocking White and giving Aikman time to throw.

The Packers got a second-period touchdown when Favre's 59-yard pass to Robert Brooks set up Edgar Bennett's 1-yard touchdown run.

But the Cowboys trumped it with two second-period touchdowns to take a 28-9 halftime lead.

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