AS the Dallas Cowboys got dressed last Sunday after winning the National Football Conference championship, some of the players were remembering a game early in the season: Buffalo 13, Dallas 10.
As he listened to the players after the game, Craig James, an ESPN TV analyst and a former Super Bowl player, felt the players were starting to use that loss to motivate themselves for the Super Bowl this Sunday against the same Buffalo Bills. ``The last thing you want to do is get Dallas pumped up,'' James says.
An inspired Dallas team could be awesome, he says. ``They are one of the rare teams in the history of the NFL with a quarterback [Troy Aikman] as hot as he is, as precise as he is, with the number of talented [receivers] he has and an offensive line that has played for a number of years,'' James explains. ``They can do whatever they want.''
In fact, James thinks the difference between this match-up and last year's Super Bowl, when the Cowboys whipped the Bills 52 to 17, is that Dallas's defense has improved. Dallas's defensive line ``is two deep, and they rotate and stay healthy and fresh and continually put pressure on people - that's a real key,'' James says.
Of course, Buffalo, in its fourth straight Super Bowl (0-3, so far), knows that and will employ its no-huddle offense. This will make it more difficult for Dallas to substitute players, particularly after the Bills pick up three or four yards.
James, however, says the Cowboy linemen are just about the best-conditioned players in the game. They are not heavyweights, ``carrying around another 20 pounds of walrus stuff so that eight or nine plays kill them,'' he says. Dallas's defense has the greatest ``closing speed'' in the NFL, and uses its quickness to get up the field and after the quarterback, James says. Last week San Francisco quarterback Steve Young was continually hounded by the Dallas line, which sacked him four times.
James says Buffalo is also an improved team with better balance. Last year, the team relied too much on its talented running back Thurman Thomas. This year, quarterback Jim Kelly is throwing more to wide receivers Billy Brooks and Andre Reed.
Buffalo's defense has also improved. All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith may be having the best year of his career and draws multiple blockers. As a result, James says, ``there is a solo block on someone else and an average player is making a sack.'' Last Sunday in the AFC championship, Kansas City quarterback Joe Montana was knocked out of the game by Buffalo's line.
If both teams have improved, won't the result be the same as last year? Not necessarily, James says. Last year, Buffalo had nine turnovers. ``They probably learned that, more than anything else, they must play mistake-free in a championship game against a team like Dallas,'' James says. He still expects Dallas to win by 10.
Playing in the Super Bowl does funny things to talented teams, James says. He should know: Eight years ago, his New England Patriots team was blown out by the Chicago Bears. ``It is like when a player gets into his first big-time game - whether it's pro, college, or high school: The tempo is different, and you feel like you're trying to walk across a freeway filled with speeding cars.''
The speeding car in this case is the Cowboys' high-octane offense. Most teams double up on talented wide receiver Michael Irvin. As the cornerback protects against deep passes, the linebacker pulls back to try to prevent a slant pass over the middle.
This often leaves the other wide receiver, Alvin Harper, with single coverage. Last week he caught four passes for 78 yards. What really hurt San Francisco, however, was Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, who caught seven passes for 85 yards.
Buffalo may be forced to give the Cowboys the short passes, James says, forcing them to run Smith, who still has a shoulder injury. With ``Smith carrying the ball, it is going to take longer for the Cowboys to score, therefore there may be an opportunity for a mistake in a 10-to-12 play drive,'' James says.
And there is the intangible of playing in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. ``It is a different game when you go indoors,'' he says. The Dome amplifies crowd noise, which may make it harder for Buffalo quarterback Kelly to call plays at the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys may not have favorable memories of the dome. The last time Dallas played Atlanta, they lost 27 to 14. ``If I were Buffalo,'' James says. ``I'd be calling [former Atlanta coach] Jerry Glanville to see what he thought.''