Cowboys complete sweep of NFC East

Arizona at Dallas

  Monday, Dec. 28 1:44am ET
Who were those Cowboys?
Scripps Howard News Service

IRVING, Texas -- There were 11 strangers in Texas Stadium on Sunday night, and they played offense for the Cowboys in the second quarter.

 Troy Aikman
Troy Aikman and the Cowboys offense finally showed some pop in the regular-season finale.

Where were the security guys when the Redskins needed them?

The impostors scored 17 points in one period. The blocked. They ran. They caught passes. They scored touchdowns (note the plural usage).

And they handed Dallas a 20-7 halfime lead which convinced Chan Gailey to rest his studs in the second half of a 23-7 victory.

Are these the same guys who scored six points in seven quarters against also-rans New Orleans and Kansas City? The same team which struggled to beat Philadelphia at home? Or are these the same guys who scored 30 points or more in three straight games against Arizona, Seattle and Minnesota.

For the Cowboys to have any hope in the playoffs, the Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Billy Davis and Eric Bjornson who played the second period better show up Saturday afternoon to take on the red-hot Arizona Cardinals.

If they do, the Cowboys can dream a scenario where they beat the Cardinals, upset Atlanta (14-2) and return to Texas Stadium to play San Francisco or Green Bay.

It does seem like a far-fetched idea. But sweeping the NFC East would have seemed ridiculous in July, and predicting a 17-point quarter by this offense would have been totally crazy yesterday.

I'm still not ready to proclaim Dallas a contender, but Sunday's execution level should make them a favorite against Arizona.

That right there is progress, something I hadn't seen since before turkey season.

Dallas scored 33 points in three games between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and certainly looked like it'd be the first NFC playoff team to hit the showers.

That could still be the case, but the Cowboys showed up Sunday night with a purpose and regained some of the form we saw in an 8-3 start.

Dallas (10-6) became the first team to be a perfect 8-0 in the NFC East with a 23-7 victory at Texas Stadium.

The Cowboys' second big Christmas package came in the form of a 52-yard game-winning field goal by Arizona's Chris Jacke. The Cardinals' 16-13 victory means Dallas will have a chance to go 9-0 against the NFL's weakest division.

Since 1992, the Cowboys are 13-1 against Arizona.

That means a lot less to me than the positives from the Cowboys' offense Sunday night. Troy Aikman was sharp, receivers caught passes and the special teams were special.

Dallas averaged 10 yards per play with its first-team offense on the field against a team which had won six of its last eight games. And both of those Redskin losses came to Arizona.

The second quarter was an offensive outburt. Three possessions, three scores and 17 points.

Washington scored on the final play of the first quarter to take a 7-3 lead.

Then the Redskins got a look at something they probably couldn't find on film. Namely a Cowboy offense in rhythm.

Aikman throws a rare bomb to Irvin for 51 yards which led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Emmitt Smith. Smith broke the all-time record for rushing TDs previously held by Marcus Allen.

The next time the Cowboys got the ball they were even better. Billy Davis got open on an out route and a post pattern on back-to-back plays -- probably a season first -- and Aikman found him for gains of 19 and 24 yards.

Aikman came back with a post to Irvin, which drew an interference call, and then Smith followed with a highlight-film 26-yard touchdown.

That's eight plays for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Forget third-down conversions, Dallas only faced one the entire quarter.

But Aikman didn't stop there. Dallas put together a nice two-minute drill that reached the Washington 5-yard line. The Cowboys settled for a Richie Cunningham field goal, but the aggressiveness was back in the attack and Dallas had a 20-7 halftime lead.

Aikman was 6-for-7 for 167 yards in the second quarter. That's about 24 yards per attempt. Aikman (10-for-15 for 184 yards) threw two perfect deep balls in the period, including a 45-yarder to Patrick Jeffers on a nice rollout.

And the run game was OK, too. Smith picked up 45 yards on five tries. In all, the Cowboys gained 15.6 yards per play in a 219-yard quarter.

Cowboys coach Chan Gailey rewarded the effort by giving Aikman, Smith and Irvin the second half off. He had seen enough to think he was ready to beat the Cardinals.

They certainly are capable of that small feat, but they're not yet true contenders.

The consistency coach Chan craves is not there yet, but to establish a trend you've got to start somewhere. His team showed signs of life against the Redskins, which was a refreshing change in itself.

Andy Newberry writes for the Wichita Falls (Texas) Times Record News.

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