For three quarters this time, the National Football League had itself a championship game more worthy than most of the name Super Bowl. The score so far was certainly close: Dallas 20, Buffalo 13. In retrospect, however, the Cowboys were the only ones making it happen in the second half - or ``making the plays'' as their well-coiffed coach Jimmy Johnson puts it.
Dallas shut out Buffalo in the final 30 minutes while scoring 24 points in a football tour de force, which, yes, establishes the Cowboys as the ``team of the '90s.'' As trite as that may sound, Dallas looks as strong as any Super Bowl champion ever has, and barring unforseen circumstances, is already a clear favorite to become the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row.
Among the observations that linger after Sunday's game in Atlanta:
* Running backs haven't often won the game's Most Valuable Player honors (only five times previously), but Dallas's Emmitt Smith was a deserving winner, and not only because of his 132 yards. It was the way he gained those yards - with pounding relentlessness - that caught one's attention. He practically scored the go-ahead touchdown singlehandedly in a series of runs that were one of the greatest displays of individual brilliance in Super Bowl history.
* Buffalo truly does deserve credit for playing in four consecutive Super Bowls. That is a feat in itself. If the Bills can make it five in a row next season they would show the heart of a champion. Let's face it: If the Super Bowl weren't a neutral-site game, the Buffalo players might be wearing at least one championship ring by now.
* Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson uttered one of the best lines when he said in the televised postgame victory interview that there was nothing to the reports of feuding betweem him and team owner Jerry Jones. ``When you get these kind of results, the only way you're at each other's throats is hugging.''
* Johnson, by the way, is viewed as a possible successor to Don Shula, when the venerable Miami Dolphins coach retires. Johnson coached at the University of Miami, and reportedly considers the city his adopted home.
* What a tough day for Thurman Thomas of the Bills, who not only was held to just 34 yards rushing but also saw his fumble early in the third quarter scooped up and returned for a 46-yard, game-tying touchdown that turned the tide for Dallas.
* President Clinton's congratulatory postgame phone call had an awkward moment when he invited Jones, Johnson, and the Cowboys to the White House for a second straight year. Johnson said he had plans to take a boat trip. Not to worry, though, Jimmy. Michael Jordan was a no-show during the Bush presidency.
* Gotta love the Gatorade shower that has become the crowning sideline antic at the Super Bowl, especially when it involves Jimmy Johnson's almost imperviously groomed head of hair. Jackson leads Jordanless Bulls
Now that Michael Jordan has left, the Chicago Bulls are proving to be a stronger team than some imagined. They are running virtually neck-and-neck for Central Division honors with the Atlanta Hawks, a fact that surely makes Phil Jackson a strong candidate to be voted National Basketball Association Coach of the Year - something that hasn't happened to date, despite the Bulls' three straight championships.
Jackson is probably one of the most literate members of his profession, and his thoughtful explanation of his coaching priorities is a dandy: ``What's highest on the priority list is bringing people together in a cooperative effort that increases everyone's harmonic resonance with one another. That's the chain of power.'' It seems safe to say ``harmonic resonance'' won't become a locker-room cliche any time soon. `Hard Road' goes softcover
Arthur Ashe's monumental work on the history of the African-American athlete, ``A Hard Road to Glory,'' is out in paperback - or at least a major part of it is.
From the original three-volume set, Armistad Press has extracted five shorter books on basketball, baseball, track and field, boxing, and football.
The original work, which came out in 1988, is surely among the most ambitious sports-publishing projects ever undertaken. Ashe enlisted the help of seven researchers.
The new paperbacks rate as a bargain at $9.95 apiece, given the level and depth of their scholarship, evenhandedness, and insight. Ashe completed updating the history before his death in 1993. He wisely does not leave his views totally out of his work.
One clearly labeled personal view in the basketball book is shared to illustrate a difference of opinion among blacks. Many coaches vehemently opposed an effort (Proposition 42) that would have denied financial help to college athletes who fell below a national aptitude test score.
Ashe, a strong advocate of a greater academic orientation among black athletes, favored the initiative and warned against what he called ``the deep-seated cynicism of coddled black public school athletes, many of whom are carried through school with inflated grades and peer-group status that borders on deification.''
Those are strong words, but Ashe was never one to mince them, even if it branded him politically incorrect within the African-American community.
The current plan is to update ``Hard Road'' every four years. Touching other bases
* The baseball players' association has given its consent to a restructuring plan that will divide the American and National Leagues into three divisions each, instead two.
For the casual fan, the chief benefit may come in reading the daily standings. Before, it was disconcerting at best to find St. Louis in the NL East, and Atlanta and Cincinnati in the NL West.
Now St. Louis and Cincinnati can take their rightful place in the newly added Central Division, while Atlanta slides into the East.
* A wealthy Princeton University alumnus has pledged $1 million to endow a coaching position with the Ivy League school's baseball program. Robert H.B. Baldwin, a retired executive of the Morgan Stanley investment-banking firm, earlier endowed coaching ``chairs'' for basketball and football, the other two sports he played.
* A recent issue of Inside Sports magazine presents its version of what is hot in the National Basketball Association and what is not. Herein a sampling: Shaved heads, laser-light player introductions, signing foreign players, and the Charlotte Hornets are all in; hair, standard player intros, doubting foreign players, and the Boston Celtics are out.