DALLAS -- Fans of the Dallas Cowboys will tell you that the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium is there to allow the gods to watch their favorite team play.
It's a joke that infuriates the many Cowboy haters across the country, whose population probably pretty much equals that of the many Cowboy lovers.
The higher authorities have never announced any such preferences, of course. But after the upturn in the Cowboys' fortunes in the past three weeks, it is indeed fair to wonder whether a divine hand is guiding them.
They were in total disarray in mid-December, completely stalled out on offense and falling apart at their high-priced, mega-hyped seams. That their season would end poorly seemed certain.
Today, less than a month later, they're the clear favorites to win the Super Bowl as they go about preparing to play the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game Sunday at Texas Stadium.
What happened? Let's just say they got a lot of help. From above? Maybe not. From their bitter rivals, the San Francisco 49ers? Definitely.
Now that all is keen again here in Jonesland, Cowboys players and coaches are trying to put a happy face on their recent troubles and downplay them as insignificant.
"Maybe it looked bad from the outside, but we never lost confidence in ourselves in this locker room," quarterback Troy Aikman said yesterday.
Hmmm. That doesn't quite jibe with the locker room scene after the Cowboys' 20-17 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia on Dec. 10, a defeat made famous by Cowboys coach Barry Switzer's ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Cowboy 29 -- twice.
Running back Emmitt Smith was in tears after the game. "I have no idea what is happening to this team," he said.
"There are serious concerns within this organization," Aikman said.
The loss was the Cowboys' second in a row and put the 49ers in position to clinch the home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Cowboys struggled again the following week at home against the New York Giants. The offensive line opened few holes. Aikman's passing was erratic. The run defense was shredded. Only a couple of questionable calls late in the game saved the Cowboys from a third straight defeat.
"This has been a roller-coaster season like no other around here," fullback Darryl Johnston said, "and there is no question that at times we were in the valley."
How did the Cowboys climb out? Well, it didn't hurt that the 49ers suddenly and stunningly fell apart.
After winning six games in a row down the stretch, the 49ers lost their last game of the regular season in Atlanta, giving the home-field advantage back to the Cowboys. Then they were soundly beaten by the Packers in the divisional playoffs last weekend.
The Falcons and Packers beat the 49ers the same way: by stacking their defenses to stop the pass and daring the 49ers to beat them running. The 49ers couldn't do it. Running back William Floyd's injury earlier in the season finally caught up with the defending Super Bowl champs. They just didn't have enough balance on offense.
That the Cowboys benefited from the 49ers' demise is indisputable. The exhale in the Cowboys' camp was almost audible.
Instead of having to go to San Francisco to play the NFC title
game against a 49ers team that had beaten them three straight times, the Cowboys get to stay home for the title game and play a Packers team that they have beaten six straight times.
If that isn't divine guidance, it's a good imitation.
Of course, the Cowboys themselves have also had a role in their turnaround. Their offense has rejoined the living with two strong performances against the Cardinals and Eagles, the latter in the playoffs Sunday. The linemen, who had looked fat and tired, are blowing open holes again. Aikman's touch has returned. Receiver Kevin Williams has finally begun to make plays, rendering the double-teaming of Michael Irvin less effective.
"It is a rare team that stays on a total high through the whole season," Irvin said. "Every team struggles at some point. We just happened to struggle late, and things get magnified around here because we're the Cowboys."
Still, the Cowboys' late-season slump makes it difficult entirely to trust their suddenly fortuitous circumstances. The Packers have the best quarterback in the league in Brett Favre and played brilliantly in eliminating the 49ers. An apparent rift between Aikman and Switzer -- Aikman won't talk about the coach -- certainly isn't helping matters.
If the Cowboys revert to even a semblance of their recent, confused form, they could get beaten Sunday.
On the other hand, Jerry Jones didn't pay a reported $62 million in salaries this year (including signing bonuses) for nothing. He has an experienced, talented team, a team that should beat the Packers if it performs to its appropriate level.
"I'm still not sure what was wrong with us," Smith said, "but I know when things are right. And they sure seem right now."