First things first. Which, at the moment, doesn't include the Dallas Cowboys.

By now, it's rather obvious this is a team that has to settle for second best. And a distant second best at that.The only consolation is that Super Bowls aren't won in mid-December. Otherwise, Ken Norton's gloating would be coming in loud and clear from San Francisco.

Something strange, however, seems to be happening at Valley Ranch this week. Something that probably relates to being demoted to second-best status.

What's this? A sense of urgency by the Cowboys? And an actual "big-game mentality" also surfacing?

Yes, all that, and even a touch of concern has been observed at Valley Ranch.

Imagine that. The Cowboys showing anxiety over the New Orleans Saints. And putting a special emphasis on Monday night's visit to the Superdome.

Consider the wholesale chuckling in San Francisco at the mere thought of such a delightful thing. Two weeks ago, the 49ers crumbled those same Saints in the same Superdome.

Is this what it has come to for the almighty world champs? Running a bit scared of the Saints?

If so, good. If not, then it would be a certain sign the Cowboys have dropped to even a more distant No. 2 behind the 49ers than current form shows.

Sure, the Cowboys have every reason to be skittish about a trip to New Orleans. Reality, you see, can't be ignored. Neither can that Cleveland ordeal last week.

It's an NFL fact that San Francisco is now performing at a level far beyond that of the Cowboys.

Remember the popular theory in Dallas of a month ago? The one that said the 49ers would go into a psychological slide after beating the Cowboys in the Candlestick "Super Bowl"? Sorry, but it was the wrong song.

Actually, the reverse happened. Based on quality of play, it was the Cowboys who slid. And instead of the "Dallas phobia" that once seemed to be consuming the 49ers, there's been a hint of "49ers phobia" at Valley Ranch.

After Dallas departed Candlestick on Nov. 13, calendar dates were quickly circled. The Cowboys honed in for a Jan. 15 rematch with the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

Meanwhile, they haven't had an impressive, dominant game in a month, and even lost to the Brownies.

"We've been talking since July about where the NFC Championship Game is going to be played," said quarterback Troy Aikman. "But if we're not concentrating on our immediate concerns, like New Orleans, we'll be sitting at home watching that championship game on TV."

Barry Switzer is not exactly blowing coaching smoke when he terms Monday night as "the most important game of the season. Nothing else we've done to this point even matters."

It was also Switzer who pushed an interesting point about the Cowboys still needing one win to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs. The 49ers close with Minnesota, and if Dallas lost the last two on the road, San Francisco would have every reason to lose against the Vikings. The Vikings would receive the bye, forcing Dallas into the three-game wild-card round.

"Do we want to play three times or two?" asked Switzer, smiling.

"But these players have been here before," he added. "They know what it takes, and I will be really shocked if we don't give our best effort of the season against New Orleans."

Granted, if the Cleveland game didn't recharge and refocus the Cowboys, nothing will.

But Switzer is also kidding himself as he continues to downplay the "December roll" theory that has carried Dallas into the last two Super Bowls.

"The way I remember it," he said, "they lost a game in December two years ago, and last season they had to go five quarters in the last game of the season to sew up home field. Nothing is different. This team is where it's been the last two years."

No, Barry.

Two years ago, Aikman was on a unprecedented streak. He's never played better. Probably no quarterback has, unless it's Steve Young at the moment. But Aikman is currently far from that form.

Then, in December '93, there was no doubt Jimmy Johnson was putting the best team in football on the field, even if the Cowboys were still having to dig out from under Jerry Jones' "holding out" Emmitt Smith.

This season, the overall league is not as good as last year, but these 49ers are much stronger than any Super Bowl challenger the Cowboys faced in '93.

And, for what it's worth, the 6-8 Saints have won two straight, and Cowboys' defensive coordinator Butch Davis says, "New Orleans has eight offensive starters better than Cleveland."

That alone should explain this week's mentality, urgency and even concern at Valley Ranch.