No surprise. It's the defending champion Dallas Cowboys against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game for the third consecutive year - just like everyone predicted in August.
The uncertainty is how healthy Emmitt Smith will be for that game after reinjuring his left hamstring and missing most of the Cowboys' 35-9 playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday."There's no question Emmitt won't be well by next Sunday," Dallas trainer Kevin O'Neill said. "He had three weeks to get ready for this game and he wasn't well. He's got a chance. But I won't have a good handle on what degree of pull he has until until tomorrow. We'll see if there is any swelling."
The Cowboys, despite the absence of Smith, gave rookie coach Barry Switzer his first playoff triumph behind the pinpoint passing of Troy Aikman, who completed 23 of 30 passes for a club playoff record 337 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith, who scored the Cowboys' first touchdown, injured the hamstring late in the first quarter and did not return. Smith, though, said he'll play against the 49ers.
"It didn't feel as bad as it did when I hurt it in New Orleans. That's a good sign. I felt a twinge. I feel very good about my chances," he said.
Switzer told Smith after the game: "You've got all damn year to rest that thing" and added "if we win this one we'll win the Super Bowl."
Later Switzer changed his tune, saying "why would anyone expect him to play this week when he had three weeks of rest last time and didn't last more than a quarter?"
Smith, who had 44 yards on seven carries, went to Valley Ranch for treatment after the game.
The Cowboys, 12-4 during the regular season, play at San Francisco. The 49ers beat the Chicago Bears 44-15 in the other NFC divisional playoff game on Saturday.
Dallas, a 21-14 loser to the 49ers earlier in the season, is trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls and become the first franchise to win five. Pittsburgh, Miami, San Francisco, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh all have won two consecutive Super Bowls.
Switzer said he has now seen the difference between regular season and playoff games.
"I asked 'em to show me and they did," Switzer said. "There is a difference between the two seasons and I got to experience it today. It's the best we played all year on offense and defense. It was Troy's best game since the opener against Pittsburgh."
Aikman, 7-0 in playoff games he has started, had only one touchdown pass in his last five games. But he was on target Sunday, setting a playoff record with a 94-yard hookup with Alvin Harper before leaving in favor of Rodney Peete with 7:55 left.
"We can talk about San Francisco now," Aikman said. "It's going to be a fun week. This is what we play for. I hope nothing changes from the last two years."
Tight end Jay Novacek caught 11 passes for 104 yards, Michael Irvin had six catches for 111 yards and Harper had two catches for 108 yards. It marked the first time since 1982 that three receivers topped 100 yards in the playoffs.
"Troy was sizzling today," Irvin said. "I could see it coming in practice. This team plays better when we have the fear of losing and we had it today. We'll have it next week, too. "
Dallas defeated the 49ers 38-21 last year in Texas Stadium and 30-20 two years ago in Candlestick with Jimmy Johnson as coach. The 49ers were early seven-point favorites for Sunday's NFC title game.
Switzer gave the Cowboys a stirring pregame pep talk.
"Coach Johnson did it with intimidation but Barry is more like your buddy," said kick returner Kevin Williams."Barry kept saying `ain't no tomorrow, ain't no tomorrow.' It got me hyped up."
Aikman was 16 of 21 for 272 yards in the first half as the well-rested Cowboys took a 28-9 lead.
"They have a lot of great weapons and it seems like they always pop big plays whenever they play us," Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren said. "All the teams in the NFL are trying to catch the 49ers and the Cowboys. Next week will be a great game. It's what the public wanted and now here it is."
Williams' 36-yard return of the opening kickoff got the Cowboys rolling on a 51-yard drive with the payoff coming on Smith's 5-yard run.
After Chris Jacke kicked a 50-yard field goal, Aikman and Harper put their names in the playoff record book with their long TD play.
Harper outran the coverage of Terrell Buckley and George Teague and caught Aikman's 55-yard pass. Buckley and Teague ran Harper down on the 14-yard line but he cut back, broke Teague's arm tackle and scored. It broke the record of 93 yards from Buffalo's Daryle Lamonica to Elbert Dubenion in 1963 against Boston.
"I don't know what coverage we were in but Harper was way too wide open," Holmgren said. "Troy was extremely hot."
Defensive end Reggie White was so irritated by the game he refused comment in the locker room.
Dallas made it 21-3 in the second period behind Aikman. He hit Irvin on a 53-yard pass and found Novacek open for a 22-yarder to the Packers' 1. Blair Thomas, who replaced Smith, scored three plays later from the 1, the first of his two TDs.
Brett Favre, who was 18 of 35 for 211 yards and an interception, hit a 59-yard pass to Robert Brooks on a 74-yard scoring drive which was finished off by Edgar Bennett's 1-yard run on fourth down to make it 21-9. A pass for 2 points was broken up by James Washington.
Aikman, helped along by a 39-yard kickoff return by Williams, victimized Green Bay with short passes while working the clock. He hit Irvin with a 12-yard slant pass. Tight end Scott Galbraith scored his first TD of the season on a 1-yard pass from Aikman with five seconds left in the half.
Dallas went conservative in the second half but Aikman pieced together a fourth quarter drive in which Thomas, a free agent picked up late in the season, finished it off with a 2-yard TD run. Thomas rushed 23 times for 70 yards.
Smith reaggravated his left hamstring on an 8-yard run late in the first quarter. He pulled the muscle on Dec. 19 against New Orleans and sat out the last game of the season against the New York Giants. Smith also pulled his right hamstring earlier in the season but hasn't been bothered by it again.
Dallas defeated the Packers 42-31 on Thanksgiving Day in a game Sterling Sharpe had four TD passes. Sharpe is out with a career-threatening neck injury. The Cowboys also beat the Packers 27-17 in the divisional playoffs last year.