They did it -- as they have all season -- with superb defense.
Kicker Chris Boniol added four field goals as the Cowboys defeated the New England Patriots, 12-6, and secured a first-round playoff game at home.
Green Bay leads Carolina by a game in the battle for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Dallas (10-5) will play the third-seeded wild-card team, either Philadelphia or Minnesota, on the weekend of Dec. 28-29.
The Cowboys took an arduous journey to the division championship.
Three players have been suspended since the start of training camp for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, perennial Pro Bowl players Jay Novacek (tight end) and Charles Haley (defensive end) have been nonfactors because of back injuries, and their offense has struggled.
The Cowboys failed to score a touchdown for the fourth time this season and the third time in five weeks.
"I'm concerned. I'm scared. I'm embarrassed," receiver Michael Irvin said. "It's flat-out embarrassing for us to be playing the way we're playing. I sat there on the sideline and I just about started crying because I'm embarrassed.
"I'm getting tired of asking the defense to keep coming up over and over again."
Yesterday, the Cowboys held the NFL's highest-scoring offense (27.7 points per game) to two field goals. New England failed to score on its last nine possessions.
The Cowboys have not allowed a touchdown since Washington scored in the third quarter on Thanksgiving Day. Last week, Arizona managed two field goals.
Though they didn't dominate, the Cowboys made key plays at critical times and allowed only 279 yards of total offense.
New England running back Curtis Martin rushed for 91 yards and rookie receiver Terry Glenn caught eight passes for 83 yards. But safety Darren Woodson, playing Ben Coates man-to-man most of the time, shut out the Pro Bowl tight end.
New England entered the game with 10 wins in its previous 12 games and an offense that had scored more than 30 points six pTC times.
Quarterback Drew Bledsoe had thrown 25 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions, but he was no match for the Cowboys' No. 1-ranked pass defense. Bledsoe completed 20 of 40 passes for 178 yards with three interceptions.
"We had an opportunity to prove that we belonged at the top of the league, and we failed to do that," Bledsoe said. "We had a lot of good opportunities, but we squandered them."
In what has become a season-long trend, the Cowboys' offense also struggled.
"It has been frustrating for all of us not to be scoring," Aikman said. "It's good the defense is playing so well. They're playing at a championship level, but if the offense doesn't pick it up we'll be home early from the playoffs."
New England drove 65 yards on 10 plays on its first possession to take a 3-0 lead. One play after the ensuing kickoff, Ty Law intercepted Aikman's first-down pass and returned it to the Dallas 30.
The drive stalled at the Dallas 13, and Adam Vinatieri kicked another short field goal. New England led 6-0, but the Patriots had wasted two opportunities to seize control.
It proved to be their downfall.
Herschel Walker returned Vinatieri's kickoff 70 yards to the New England 19, which began a frustrating afternoon inside the Patriots' 20 for the Cowboys.
Dallas turned five possessions inside the Patriots' 20 into four field goals and an interception.
Pub Date: 12/16/96