Aikman, Harper Lead Record-Setting Cowboys In 35-9 Runaway Victory Over Packers
A cloud of concern hung over the Dallas Cowboys in the days leading up to their Divisional playoff showdown versus the Green Bay Packers. It had been nearly two months since the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys had looked their normal dominant selves. Late-season injuries to star quarterback Troy Aikman and MVP running back Emmitt Smith had slowed the Dallas offense, leading to a pair of losses in the season’s final three games and a wave of public doubt about their playoff fate. Had the mighty Cowboys run out of gas?
But after a week off to rest up and get healthy, the Cowboys put all of the questions to bed with a record-setting thumping of Green Bay. Behind the pinpoint passing of Aikman, strong running from the duo of Smith and Blair Thomas, and a stifling defensive effort, the Cowboys posted their biggest yardage output of the entire season in a 35-9 victory at raucous Texas Stadium.
Over the final six weeks of the regular season, the only time in which the Dallas offense managed to go over the 300-yard mark was on Thanksgiving Day when No. 3 quarterback Jason Garrett sparked a 436-yard explosion against those same Packers. With Aikman back in the lineup and feeling as healthy as he had since injuring his knee on Nov. 20 versus Washington, the Cowboys surpassed that mark, reaching 450 total yards.
“Troy answered the bell today,” declared a smiling Barry Switzer afterwards. “It’s great seeing him back. It was his best game since the opener at Pittsburgh.”
From the outset, the Cowboys were the team with an extra spring to their step. Kevin Williams nearly took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, but was tripped up by Green Bay kicker Craig Hentrich at the Dallas 49 after a 36-yard return. A 22-yard pass completion from Aikman to a wide-open Irvin was the highlight of a seven-play march that ended with Smith scoring untouched from five yards out to give Dallas a 7-0 lead.
With the score 7-3, the Cowboys regained possession after a Green Bay punt at their own 6-yard line. Instead of trying to escape from the shadow of their own goalpost with a handoff, offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese went for the jugular, ordering Aikman to seek out wide receiver Alvin Harper on a deep-post pattern.
Aikman dropped deep into the end zone and launched a rocket to Harper deep down the middle, past the midfield stripe and the trailing form of cornerback Terrell Buckley. The pass was complete, but the chase was on. Buckley continued to give chase, but Harper cut back on the left sideline to get away. And when safety George Teague missed the tackle, Harper was free to glide into the end-zone, his 94-yard touchdown reception the longest in NFL postseason history.
“It was the coverage we wanted, but the safety was deeper than we wanted,” said Aikman. “It was a great call by Ernie. Ernie called a great game.”
On Dallas’ next possession, Smith re-aggravated a hamstring injury that he had suffered on Dec. 19 at New Orleans, and was relegated to the bench for the remainder of the game. Enter Thomas, who had been signed a few weeks earlier for this express purpose. The Dallas offense continued to roll over the Packers in the second quarter. Michael Irvin’s 53-yard catch-and-run sparked another 80-yard touchdown march, culminated by Thomas’ one-yard scoring jaunt around left end.
A Green Bay touchdown (and failed two-point conversion) made the score 21-9. But back came Aikman, hitting tight end Jay Novacek on three of the next four plays, totaling 18 yards. A 12-yard pass to Irvin gave the Cowboys a first-down at the Packer five-yard line. An interference call on Buckley while covering Harper advanced the ball to the one-yard line.
On first-down the Cowboys showed a power formation, which usually indicated a running play that close to the goal-line. But this time, Aikman faked to Thomas and passed to Scott Galbraith for the touchdown. Galbraith was all alone because Novacek was being shadowed by four Packer defenders.
Novacek finished the game with 11 pass receptions, setting a new franchise postseason record.
“It’s a lot of fun playing in this offense,” said Novacek. “Troy was reading the defense extremely well and putting the ball exactly where he wanted it.”
Individual records aside, Novacek was also part of another historical landmark which the Cowboys reached on this day. Irvin (111 yards), Harper (108 yards), and Novacek (104 yards) combined to give Dallas only the NFL’s second trio of postseason receivers to catch passes totaling 100 yards in a game.
Coming out of the locker room for the second half, it was the Dallas defense flexing its muscle to preserve the Cowboys’ 19-point advantage. Green Bay enjoyed choice field position when Corey Harris returned the third-quarter kickoff 51 yards to the Dallas 41. But on second-down cornerback Kevin Smith intercepted a Brett Favre pass intended for Anthony Morgan. Favre, playing without All-Pro wideout Sterling Sharpe, managed only 211 yards for the game on 18-of-35 passing.
Defensive end Jim Jeffcoat authored the next big play on the ensuing Green Bay possession. The Packers had excellent field position after intercepting Troy Aikman, but Jeffcoat’s eight-yard sack of Favre on third-and-9 from the Dallas 12-yard line pushed Green Bay kicker Chris Jacke into a lengthier field goal try. Jacke’s 37-yard attempt was wide right, leaving the score Dallas 28, Green Bay 9.
“Dallas played like world champions today,’ said Favre. “…When they’re playing like that, they’re tough to stop.”
Later in the third quarter, Thomas started the final scoring drive of the afternoon by thrilling the Dallas faithful with a 21-yard gain. Then Aikman went back to the air attack, finding Novacek for 10 yards and Irvin for 13 more. After a holding foul on LeRoy Butler gave the Cowboys a first-down on the two-yard line, Thomas did a high-dive over the pile of defenders to cement the 35-9 final.
For the game, Thomas finished with 70 yards on 23 carries, to lead all runners.