Troy Aikman is having fun again.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback, who has spent a season troubled by injuries and angst, is in the midst of his favorite time of the year.
"The thing I've always liked about the playoffs is the finality of it and knowing there's so much importance on every play," said Aikman, who leads the Cowboys (13-4) into their fourth straight appearance in the NFC title game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers (13-5). "Every single play you line up for is a critical play. I like that."
Aikman, who finished the regular season in a slump, was at his playoff best last Sunday, leading the Cowboys to a 30-11 divisional victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 253 yards and one touchdown.
Less than a month ago, however, Aikman was in a funk.
"For 60 minutes, I get to do what I enjoy. But this has not been an enjoyable year for me, in regard to things outside the football field. I know it's totally a business," he said at the time. "I do still get the spirit of competition, the camaraderie with the guys, the emotions. But beyond that, everything that's happened has taken a lot out of me."
Such as his relationship with coach Barry Switzer.
Aikman relished former coach Jimmy Johnson's tough, disciplined style in which the players were always on edge. He apparently doesn't like Switzer's laid-back approach.
He doesn't publicly criticize Switzer, but he doesn't spend a lot of time praising him. And he had to deny a report that he might threaten to retire to push out Switzer.
"I don't even know if I have any clout within this organization, and if I did, I would certainly not exercise it," he said.
Aikman was recruited by Switzer at Oklahoma, but he transferred to UCLA so he could play in a passing offense. Aikman supposedly had patched things up with Switzer when the coach was hired in Dallas in 1994, but he still doesn't seemed thrilled with his approach.
For instance, during a national conference call, Aikman was asked if the team would like to win the Super Bowl for Switzer.
"We want to win the Super Bowl because we have an opportunity and you don't know how many opportunities you have to get to this," he said.
Aikman then was asked about the perception that Switzer is a hood ornament on the team who's just along for the ride.
"He came into a tough situation when he took the job," Aikman said. "You have to be naive not to recognize that. Most coaches come into situations where there's not been a lot of success. He came in after we won back-to-back Super Bowls."
And about the hood ornament question?
"I don't think he's just a hood ornament," Aikman replied.
For his part, Switzer doesn't sound particularly sympathetic to Aikman's musings about not having any fun. Especially when he has a $50 million contract.
After all, Switzer, who called his autobiography, "Bootlegger's Boy," has overcome a lot of adversity in his life.
"Some of this comes with the territory," Switzer said. "But he's making millions. We all have stuff we have to put up with. He shouldn't dwell on the negatives."
Switzer certainly doesn't. When he was ridiculed nationwide for his fourth-and-one call in Philadelphia, a New York tabloid called him "Bozo the Coach." Switzer had it framed and gave it to his children.
When he was asked the hood ornament question -- though phrased more politely, as to whether he thought he was holding the team back -- he scoffed.
"I don't think any of the players and coaches feel that," Switzer said. "That's something that's been invented by people who have never played."
With their different styles, Switzer and Aikman may yet wind up in the Super Bowl.
Aikman knows there's pressure to reach the title game, but he puts most of it on himself.
"Most of the pressure, if not all, is self-imposed," Aikman said. "Having lost last year in the NFC championship game, we know what it's like to be one game away and go back into that locker room knowing you didn't get it done."
AFC title game
Indianapolis Cots (11-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5)
Time: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Steelers by 10 1/2