At first glance, the Dallas Cowboys appeared to march merrily to the last two Super Bowls and a 12-3 record this season.
But it's not easy, not even for the Cowboys.Monday night on national television, as the Cowboys beat the New Orleans Saints 24-16, they saw Emmitt Smith, the league's leading scorer and heart of their offense, limp off the field with a pulled hamstring. Then they held off a Saints rally when Darrin Smith grabbed his second interception, stopping a late drive.
"We haven't had a cakewalk this year," receiver Michael Irvin said. "We've got to work for them all. Every game we've played has been a tight game, so we'll be ready when the next tight one comes."
Smith went down in the third quarter after slipping on the Superdome turf and pulling his left hamstring.
"I really don't know what happened," Smith said. "I saw a big hole and just wanted to get through it. My leg just felt like a grab, a pull, and that's it."
Dallas had already has clinched the NFC East title and the second spot in the conference playoffs behind San Francisco. The Cowboys' next do-or-die game will come in three weeks in the second round of the playoffs.
Dallas completes its regular season Saturday against the New York Giants. While the Cowboys are locked into the second seeding position in the NFC, they could knock the Giants out of playoff consideration, just as they did New Orleans on Monday night.
"Emmitt thinks he will be back (for the Giants), but obviously we're not even going to consider that," Switzer said. "The doctors don't think it's severe. But time will tell us."
"I'm getting myself mentally prepared to play," Emmitt Smith said, not ruling out an appearance against the Giants. "I just want to get in."
While the Cowboys worried about Smith and what his injury might mean to their chances of winning a third straight Super Bowl, the Saints (6-9) ensured their first losing season since 1986 by allowing two interceptions for touchdowns. New Orleans also had a defensive breakdown to open the second half that allowed the Cowboys to keep the football for 81/2 minutes.
"We just made too many mistakes to beat those guys," coach Jim Mora said. "They're too good. You can't give them anything, and we gave them too much."
Darrin Smith intercepted Jim Everett twice in the fourth quarter - the first he returned 13 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-9. The second stopped the Saints' final drive and ended their threat of tying the game.
"I saw the ball coming to me each time and I just grabbed it," Smith said. "I didn't have time to think, I just grabbed it. It felt great."
Smith's interceptions followed a 54-yard interception return by Tony Tolbert to open the scoring for Dallas.
New Orleans had its chances. In the second quarter Wayne Martin tipped Troy Aikman's pass at the Saints 32 and Darion Conner grabbed it. Conner, a linebacker, sped down the sideline only to find Larry Allen, a 330-pound rookie tackle racing along with him.
"I was blessed with speed," Allen joked later. "I just ran hard. I felt I did something real good. I think that's the fastest I ever ran. I ran a 4.8 in the 40, but that was when I only weighed 305 and was a senior in college."
Instead of a touchdown, the Saints settled for a 21-yard field goal.
Aikman was picked off by Jimmy Spencer three plays later, and the cornerback raced into the end zone. But he was ruled out of bounds at the 26.