IRVING, Texas -- Jimmy Johnson's championship Dallas Cowboys teams made their reputation by defeating the San Francisco 49ers when it mattered the most. Coach Barry Switzer's trademark is becoming his team's tendency to implode and lose when competing against the only team that matters in the least.
In a shocking development, the Cowboys' methodical rise toward seeming invincibility blew apart once more yesterday. Deion Sanders called his former 49ers a team in denial. There was no denying this: San Francisco 38, Dallas 20, before 65,108 at Texas Stadium.
"We are still the best team in football," said San Francisco linebacker Ken Norton. "Yeah, we lost to New Orleans. We lost to Carolina. But we still haven't lost to the Cowboys. We've beaten them pretty soundly three times in a row now. I think you can see why we're the defending world champions."
The Cowboys lost the 10th game of their season for the 10th consecutive year. The process was surreal and not unprecedented. The Cowboys performed as miserably as they had in last year's NFC championship game -- only the demise was more rapid.
The 49ers compiled three touchdowns in the first 7:33 of the last superpower summit. This time, it was three scores in 4:58. And this time Troy Aikman was not around to lead a futile comeback attempt from what mushroomed to a 24-0 deficit.
The 49ers have beaten mistake-prone Cowboys teams three times in the past calendar year. Switzer's overall NFL record is 21-7, but San Francisco remains his flaw. His record against it is 0-3. This was certainly the most stunning of the three, considering the lowly teams that recently had upset San Francisco and the fact Dallas was tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the best record in the league.
"It looked like the same game as last year at the beginning," Switzer said. "I hope our team handles adversity as well as their team."
The Cowboys, 8-2 and losers to their most highly regarded challenger within the conference, play the top two teams in the AFC in a five-day span. They play the Raiders (8-2) in Oakland next Sunday and the Chiefs (9-1) on Thanksgiving.
The beleaguered 49ers ripped into a Cowboys team that lost Aikman with a bruised left knee two possessions and two turnovers into the contest. The Cowboys were limited to two possessions with the NFL's top-rated passer, but that was two more than the 49ers had four-time NFL passing champion Steve Young, who missed his fourth consecutive game with a shoulder problem.
The loss of Aikman, combined with the huge deficit, had a trickle-down effect. NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith could not be the dominant force with his team so far behind, and Wade Wilson's inability to throw limited Michael Irvin to one reception in three periods. That became a turnover, as Marquez Pope poked the ball loose and Merton Hanks scooped it up and ran 38 yards for the touchdown.
The ball had been snapped four times, and the 49ers had a 14-0 lead. San Francisco's Jerry Rice, taking advantage of the first of several defensive mismatches, took a short pass from replacement starter Elvis Grbac 81 yards on the second play. He slipped inside linebacker Darrin Smith, took Grbac's pass and VTC sprinted between Larry Brown and Brock Marion.
Aikman, who bruised a knee when Pope took him down on Dallas' first play, was intercepted as the Cowboys desperately attempted to recover. With a slant pattern called to Irvin, Aikman misread the coverage and threw to outside linebacker Rickey Jackson.
The Cowboys' top-ranked offense remained unresponsive against the NFL's No. 1 defense. Aikman went out with 6:39 remaining, a possession that concluded with a John Jett punt.
The Dallas defense never developed a pass rush and could not come up with a turnover or something that could shift momentum. The Cowboys attempted to match Sanders with Rice. That is, after all, the reason the Cowboys made him the NFL's highest-paid defensive player. But San Francisco disabled the plan, confusing the Cowboys with formations and motions that concealed Rice's position and put Dallas in mismatch situations where linebackers had him on underneath routes.