America's Team has become almost as vulnerable as any other in the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys (14-4) will play the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) next Sunday in Super Bowl XXX, but unlike two years ago in their last championship appearance, the Cowboys are beatable.
"It's no secret the Cowboys have lost some top players over the years," said Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green. "That has created the opportunity to get better matchups against them. The Steelers have a better chance than some people may think for an upset."
The point is valid, because two of Dallas' four losses were to the Washington Redskins, and the others were against the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.
If anyone has the Cowboys' number, it's Redskins coach Norv Turner, who was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator when Dallas won championships in 1993 and 1994.
"No. 1, I would say you have to limit their scoring opportunities," said Turner, whose Redskins beat the Cowboys 27-23 on Oct. 1 and 24-17 on Dec. 3.
"They're going to score some points, but you have to take some time off the clock. Run the ball. Even if you're struggling, run it once in a while for time management and to keep them honest.
"No. 2, play the field-position game with them. If they beat you, make them have those long, time-consuming drives, but don't give up the big play."
In the Redskins' first win against the Cowboys, Washington's Terry Allen rushed for 121 yards on 30 carries, and he had 98 yards on 25 carries in the rematch. Philadelphia's Ricky Watters had 112 yards in the Eagles' 20-17 win over Dallas on Dec. 10.
But teams can't run just anywhere against Dallas. They have had some success by running straight ahead with traps and counter plays against defensive tackles Chad Hennings, Leon Lett and Russell Maryland and linebackers Dixon Edwards, Robert Jones and Godfrey Myles.
"Their linebackers aren't overly big, but they are quick and fast," said Turner. "The whole team has excellent pursuit, so you're not going to outrun them. Go straight at them. Their strength played into ours because we like to run the ball between the tackles."
Philadelphia coach Ray Rhodes took it a step farther. He always double-teams Lett.
"Leon is extremely sharp right now," said Rhodes. "The real problem will come if Charles Haley is back in the lineup. If you double Leon, then that leaves Haley one-on-one in pass protection."
The Redskins countered Dallas' pass rush with quick slant-ins, as did the 49ers. The 49ers also went after the Dallas linebackers with the pass.
San Francisco receiver Jerry Rice, from the slot position, beat Jones and turned a short pass over the middle into an 81-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage in the 49ers' 38-20 win against Dallas on Nov. 12.
San Francisco running back Derek Loville also beat a Dallas linebacker for a 19-yard pass over the middle in the second quarter.
"If you go with four or five receivers on first down, Dallas doesn't go with a nickel package and you can take advantage with mismatches on their linebackers, who aren't quick enough to cover receivers," said Green.
There's another reason San Francisco threw nine of 30 passes across the middle.
"It's hard to get plays off their cornerbacks [Deion Sanders and Larry Brown]," said Turner. "So a lot of people go after their safeties [Brock Marion and Darren Woodson]. You either try Dallas deep or underneath their linebackers to get a play."
Stopping Dallas' offense is harder. The Cowboys have quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin, but the show begins and ends with a physical offensive line that is the best in the game.
"You have to give Dallas a lot of run stunts, scraping gaps inside to clog lanes," said Green. "Try to confuse them in their blocking scheme to slow them down. You want to make Emmitt run laterally. He's only an average runner outside, but great inside the tackles. I think once you stop him, you've cut out a significant part of their offense."
Smith was held to 100 yards or fewer in three of the team's losses this season. He had 108 against the Eagles, but only 10 in the second half.
Until recently, Dallas had problems with its passing offense because teams started double-teaming Irvin and giving Kevin Williams, the other receiver, one-on-one coverage. But Williams has played well lately, giving the Cowboys another weapon.
Turner has made the adjustment.
"A lot of teams would stay in the same coverage, doubling on Irvin," said Turner. "What you have to do is mix your coverages against them. You can let Michael have his catches, you just have to limit them to an average of about 6 yards."
Green agrees. He also says Pittsburgh won't be a pushover.
"It's really crucial for Pittsburgh to have a good offensive day, run the ball to take time off the clock and have a methodical passing game," said Green. "But the Steelers run a lot of passes down the middle and quick traps, and one of their strengths is using defensive stunts. They have some key matchups with Dallas."