IRVING, Texas -- Picking right up where they left off last January, the Dallas Cowboys looked super again yesterday.
The Cowboys resembled the team that has won three of the past four Super Bowls, not the team that was hindered by off-the-field problems and injuries while struggling to a 10-6 regular-season record.
See Troy throw. See Emmitt run. See Michael catch.
It helped that a member of the supporting cast, safety George Teague, had a career day, intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown and forcing two fumbles to account for three of the team's five take-aways.
Although the Cowboys have to go on the road now, things appear to be breaking their way.
They'll play at the second-year Carolina Panthers next Sunday. If they win that one, they will play one of three teams they already have beaten -- the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers or Philadelphia Eagles -- in the NFC title game.
"We obviously played the best we've played all year. We made a statement today," coach Barry Switzer said.
Flamboyant cornerback Deion Sanders said: "That was the Dallas Cowboys that you all saw today. Those big guys you pay a lot of money to, they turn it on. That's the reason they make a lot of money. I think we sent a message to a lot of teams around the league today that Dallas is the team to beat.
"This is when the whole world is watching. This is when it counts. This is truly playoff time."
The other players were a bit more cautious.
Irvin said, "The only statement to be made comes in late January [in the Super Bowl]."
Smith said: "I don't need to add any quotes to put on everybody's bulletin board. Everybody saw what happened. We played a great game."
Aikman, 11-1 in playoff games, said: "I don't think it's right, but we do have some players who do get bored with the regular season. We realized the regular season doesn't really matter and we're judged on how we do in the playoffs."
The Cowboys, who scored only five touchdowns in the last six regular-season games and took what amounted to an unofficial bye last week by resting Aikman and Smith in Washington, looked yesterday like the Cowboys of old instead of old Cowboys.
They took a 7-0 lead by marching 88 yards in 14 plays on their first possession. Aikman completed five passes, four to Irvin, and Smith ran six times through huge holes and caught a pass.
It was classic Cowboys football.
Teague did most of the rest.
On the Vikings' next series, Amp Lee caught a pass over the middle and streaked 43 yards to the 1-yard line, where Teague knocked the ball free. It rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.
"I heard footsteps behind me, so I was trying to tuck the ball away. In that split-second, he punched it out of my hands. I fell on it again in the end zone, but I never got control. It was a big turning point," Lee said.
Switzer didn't think it was a turning point.
"We were going to dominate the game offensive and defensively. I just never felt like they'd ever move the ball with any consistency," he said.
The Cowboys' offensive line, which had a 50-pound-per-man edge, manhandled the Vikings' defensive front.
The Cowboys then marched 70 yards, setting up a field goal by Chris Boniol. They would have had a touchdown if Aikman hadn't overthrown Irvin in one of his rare mistakes.
Five plays later, the game was over.
On one possession, former Ravens running back Leroy Hoard fumbled on first down and Sanders recovered. Smith went 37 yards for a touchdown on the next play.
On Minnesota's next drive, Teague intercepted a third-down pass from Brad Johnson and returned the ball 29 yards for a touchdown.
That made it 24-0 with 8: 36 left in the second quarter.
"There's no way to explain it," Hoard said. "You might go the entire game and make only five mistakes and since they're spread out over the entire game, they make an impact. But we made five big mistakes all within 10 plays. That's what hurt us. Sometimes, it happens that way."
Minnesota coach Dennis Green said: "We played the defending world champions. I'm not sure who could have beaten them today. I guess we'll find that out later, but we couldn't."
Pub Date: 12/29/96