IRVING, Texas -- So this is what they mean when they say, ''Last one in is a rotten egg.''
But the stench is overwhelming. The Dallas Cowboys grabbed the final berth in the playoffs with an 8-8 record, only lost the opportunity to be the first NFC team to be knocked out of the playoffs next week because they play Sunday in Minnesota, while the toothless Detroit Lions play Saturday.
''We have the opportunity to go and do something that has never been done before,'' said Dallas Coach Chan Gailey, leaving open the possibility that the Cowboys will come to their senses and reject the NFL's postseason bid.
The Cowboys had to prevent the Giants (7-9), a team that cannot score and a team that knew before the game it was eliminated from the playoffs unless it could outscore Dallas by 81 points, from recovering an onside kick in order to win, 26-18, before 63,767 in Texas Stadium.
Dallas' win, coupled with the Lions' fourth consecutive defeat, sends two teams into the playoffs that failed to post winning records. The six previous teams that advanced without more wins than losses went 0-6 in the playoffs.
''If David's fighting Goliath, the one thing you would like to know is if you have a good sling and rocks,'' Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones said. ''I think we have that.''
Most other teams will try to counter with good players, although there is some question if there really is a team worthy of winning the Super Bowl this year.
Scratch the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that reacted like it was still being coached by Marty Schottenheimer, a specialist in ending NFL seasons prematurely.
After jumping out to a 17-0 lead against the Raiders, who had not won in Arrowhead Stadium since Al Davis acted like he knew what he was doing (1988), the Chiefs needed a 44-yard field goal from Pete Stoyanovich, the NFL's all-time most accurate kicker from beyond 40 yards, to win the AFC West Division title.
The words ''wide left,'' however, will now echo through middle America, the ''Hicksville Miss'' allowing the Raiders to go into overtime and win, 41-38, on Joe Nedney's 33-yard field goal.
That's Joe Nedney, who was out of work a few weeks ago, now forcing the Chiefs to pack away their gear.
Raider Coach Jon Gruden went skipping across the field, as happy at winning and knocking the Chiefs out of the playoffs, as finding a kicker who didn't break his heart.
The Raiders, who made a habit of losing games by seven or fewer points this season, will now join teams like the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers who will contend they are better than many of the teams who are in the playoffs.
Shoot, throw in the Philadelphia Eagles (5-11), who knocked off the St. Louis Rams (13-3) to close the regular season, the team many are picking to roll into Atlanta and win the Super Bowl.
Can't anybody around here play the game? Seattle (9-7) and Miami (9-7) are in the playoffs and matched against each other in the Kingdome, and while league rules call for sudden death, maybe an adjustment should be made to put both of them out of their misery.
But here they are, the only 12 teams in the NFL who still have the chance of winning Super Bowl XXXIV:
--Jacksonville (14-2) finished with the AFC's best record and first-round bye because it didn't play anyone worth a hoot. The Jaguars lost to the Titans twice, the only team on their schedule that finished with a winning record. They beat Cincinnati with quarterback Jay Fiedler, but will need quarterback Mark Brunell to recover from a sprained knee -- unless of course they get to play Miami.
--Indianapolis (13-3) was trying to win its last game, playing Peyton Manning into the third quarter, which makes the final 31-6 loss to Buffalo and backup quarterback Rob Johnson all the more troubling. The Colts get a first-round bye, and constant reminders from now on that Coach Jim Mora is 0-4 in the playoffs.
--Tennessee (13-3) beat its final two opponents (Jacksonville and Pittsburgh) and was the only AFC team to go undefeated at home. But it opens the playoffs with the toughest game, matched against the Bills, who rank No. 1 on defense.
--Seattle (9-7) lost to the New York Jets, but won the AFC West Division title because of its two wins over the Chiefs and Kansas City's choking routine versus Oakland. The Seahawks have not been to the playoffs since 1988, making this year's appearance officially a fluke.
--Miami (9-7) will now move its ''Dan Marino Farewell Tour'', or is it the ''Jimmy Johnson Farewell Tour'' to the Kingdome. Thanks for the memories, all right, the Dolphins, like the Seahawks, were 8-2 at one time this season.
--Buffalo (11-5) is a much better team with Johnson than with Doug Flutie running around in a lather, but Flutie will be matched against the Titans. Next year Johnson will be in command.
--St. Louis (13-3) dominated its opponents, and looks faster and more potent on artificial turf, where it will remain all the way to the Super Bowl if successful. The Rams, who draw a bye, played only one team (Tennessee) on its schedule with a winning record and lost.
--Tampa Bay (11-5) gets a first-round bye, a good thing for a team with no offense. The Bucs clinched their first NFC Central title in 18 years--if only they had thought of benching Trent Dilfer earlier. But if Tampa Bay is the second-best team in the NFC, the Rams have it made.
--Washington (10-6) won the NFC Least Division when a rookie running back from San Francisco fumbled, preventing the 49ers from kicking a winning field goal. Coach Norv Turner saved his job--unless he tanks it against the Lions.
--Minnesota (10-6) gets a bye, too, playing the Cowboys. The Vikings have been coming on strong with Jeff George at quarterback, and that's as weird to write as it is to say. The Vikings are explosive enough to wipe out anyone, but Dennis Green is still coaching this team, and he has both hands wrapped around his neck.
--Dallas (8-8) wrote off the season after a loss to New Orleans, and fans and local media were suggesting that it might be better for the team to lose and draw a better player in the NFL draft than go on the road and get smacked in the playoffs. Last year, the Cowboys opened the playoffs at home and lost to the Arizona Cardinals 20-7, which is very difficult to do.
--Detroit (8-8) is dead, it just doesn't know it. If only Barry Sanders would return the Lions' phone calls. If only the Packers would loan them Brett Favre. If only it was the best three out of five.
Of the 12 teams that advanced to the playoffs a year ago, only five returned, including the Cowboys, who are living under a star.
Off of last year's showing in the playoffs, the Cardinals were going to be this year's promising contender, only to finish 6-10 -- like most years.
Denver, the defending two-time Super Bowl champions, finished 6-10, good enough to secure the all-important easy fifth-place schedule in the AFC West, while the Falcons, their most recent Super Bowl opponent, sits 4-11.
It's been that kind of year.
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