CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Forget the Ice Bowl rematch.
A strange thing happened on the way to what was supposed to be the Cowboys' first playoff game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field since the celebrated 1967 Ice Bowl.
The Cowboys were stunned by the Carolina Panthers, 26-17, in an NFC divisional playoff game at Ericsson Stadium.
The Panthers, a second-year expansion team, will now make their first visit to Green Bay in the NFC title game next Sunday.
They will be given little chance against the Packers.
But then they were given little chance against the Cowboys, just as the other expansion team, Jacksonville, was given little chance against Denver on Saturday.
That doesn't bother the Panthers.
"To beat Dallas here is something special and it'll be even more special when we go to Lambeau because no one expects us to win," said veteran defensive back Toi Cook.
Cook conceded the TV networks probably wouldn't be thrilled to have a Carolina-Jacksonville Super Bowl. But the Panthers are savoring their success.
"It's pretty amazing," said guard Matt Elliott, a Washington Redskins castoff who's one of 19 players shipped out by other teams and molded into a contender by coach Dom Capers.
Maybe there is such a thing as destiny for the Panthers, because cornerback Tyrone Poole slipped when Michael Irvin caught a pass on Dallas' second play from scrimmage.
That allowed Irvin to break free and the result was Lamar Lathon tackled him from behind, slamming him into the turf and breaking his right collarbone.
Without Irvin, the Cowboys were the same malfunctioning offensive team that went 2-3 in the first five games when he was serving a drug suspension.
Without him, quarterback Troy Aikman (18 of 36 for 165 yards) didn't have a go-to receiver.
The Cowboys were hurt by the same inability to score in the red zone that bothered them all year. They made four trips inside the 10-yard line and settled for field goals three times.
The Cowboys were concerned about keeping their focus after sexual allegations against Irvin and teammate Erik Williams created a media stir all week.
Guard Nate Newton said: "You all turned this into a circus. It's hard to do your job and play football in the middle of a circus."
But Kevin Smith, who was called for a critical pass interference penalty that kept the first touchdown drive alive as Carolina took a 7-3 first-quarter lead, said, "We had some things happen off the field that shouldn't have happened, but I don't care about this good guy, bad guy stuff. They played a better game than we did. That's all."
They also held Emmitt Smith to 80 yards in 22 carries as unheralded Anthony Johnson ran 26 times for 104 yards for the Panthers.
Not that the Panthers (13-4) are particularly impressive even when they win. Dallas (11-7) had the edge in first downs, 21-18, and total yardage, 244-227.
The Panthers simply play good defense and run the ball with the lead. Kerry Collins threw just five passes in the second half as the Panthers protected the lead.
When Smith, bothered by injuries all year, was asked if he came out of the game in good shape, he said, "Pretty much, except for a broken heart."
The loss ended Dallas' attempt to become the first team to win four Super Bowls in a five-year span.
The Jaguars started out on a shaky note, with an admittedly jittery Collins' second pass intercepted by Darren Woodson at the Dallas 47.
In the ensuing series, Irvin made a 22-yard catch on the play that would be his last, and the Cowboys drove to the 3.
It then started to unravel. Smith got to the 1, but Eric Bjornson couldn't catch a second-down pass and Smith was thrown for a 3-yard loss on third down. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal as the momentum shifted.
"We're firemen," linebacker Kevin Greene said of the Carolina defense. "We go in and put out fires."
On the next series, Collins threw an incomplete third-down pass, but Smith was called for pass interference. That gave the Panthers a first down on the Dallas 44, the key play in their 68-yard touchdown march. On the Panthers' next series, they went 42 yards for another touchdown to take a 14-3 lead.
Dallas countered with a 73-yard touchdown drive of its own and cut the deficit to 14-11 with a safety.
Deion Sanders returned the ensuing kick 28 yards to the Cowboys' 48. But on third-and-nine at the Carolina 39, Aikman made a poor throw into the arms of Chad Cota for the first of three interceptions.
It enabled John Kasay to kick a 24-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in the half for a 17-11 halftime lead.
Since Carolina gave up only 56 points in the second half all year -- and just 13 at home, where it was 9-0 this year -- Dallas faced a daunting task without Irvin.
"You come in here, you're gonna lose," Panthers defensive back Pat Terrell said succinctly.
The Cowboys managed to get first downs on the Carolina 5- and 9-yard lines in the second half, but had to settle for field goals.
When Sanders suffered a head injury running a reverse midway through the fourth quarter, Dallas lost its last big weapon.
That left Kelvin Martin, Kevin Williams and Billy Davis as the Cowboys' receiver corps and Carolina easily shut them down and picked off a pair of desperation Aikman passes in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
All that was left for the Panthers was taking a knee twice at the Dallas 1-yard line after Sam Mills' interception -- and a victory lap.
The Panthers, the only home underdog in the playoffs, didn't seem that surprised.
"I think everybody on this team believed," Greene said.
Next Sunday's NFC championship game will be the first since the 1991 season and the second in nine seasons that doesn't include either Dallas or San Francisco. It also will be the first without an NFC East team since the 1989 season:
1996 Carolina at Green Bay
1995 Dallas 38, Green Bay 27
1994 San Fran. 38, Dallas 28
1993 Dallas 38, San Fran. 21
1992 Dallas 30, San Fran. 20
1991 Washington 41, Detroit 10
1990 Giants 15, San Fran. 13
1989 San Fran. 30, L.A. Rams 3
1988 San Fran. 28, Chicago 3
1987 Washington 17, Minn. 10
Pub Date: 1/06/97