MINNEAPOLIS -- First it was Walter Payton, now it's the playoffs that are lighting Emmitt Smith's competitive fire.
The Dallas Cowboys revisit the revitalized Minnesota Vikings (10-6) on Sunday at the Metrodome, where Smith ran wild back in November.
Inspired by the death of his childhood idol, Smith dedicated that game to the memory of Walter Payton, who died a week before, then ripped through a porous Minnesota defense for 140 yards and two touchdowns in just 1 1/2 quarters as Dallas took a 17-0 lead.
But he left with a broken hand and the Vikings ended up winning 27-17.
''It was a great night, even though for only a half,'' Smith said.
And one that might never be seen again.
''My mindset every week is to go out and perform, but that particular night was just a special moment for me,'' said Smith, who had his best season since 1985 despite missing nine quarters with the broken hand and a strained groin. ''Now, this is a special moment, too, but in a different light.''
Payton died at age 45 on Nov. 1, one week before the Cowboys played the Vikings on a Monday night. The NFL announced that all stadiums that weekend would have a moment of silence, and Smith began planning his own personal tribute.
''I draped his jersey, 34, on my back, gave him honor and said, 'Let me go play now,''' Smith said. ''It was just a moment, a moment that I wanted to lift him up and say, 'Thank you, thank you for what you've done.'''
Smith scored a 63-yard touchdown in the second quarter and stiff-armed the final defender, rookie Kenny Wright, in the face, breaking his hand.
But before Smith could go to the locker room for X-rays, the Vikings fumbled the kickoff and Dallas recovered at the Minnesota 24. Smith got the ball again and he scored without being touched.
Then his night was over, leaving him wondering whether he might've broken his career-best 237 yards, or even Payton's NFL record of 275, which he set against the Vikings in 1977.
''I tell you, I thought maybe he lost a little bit, but against us the first time we played them, he was outstanding,'' Vikings defensive coordinator Foge Fazio said. ''Fortunately for us, he got hurt. When he wasn't in there, we were kind of happy. He's a dangerous guy.''
Now, everybody's wondering if Smith can duplicate -- or even double -- his performance in the playoffs.
''I think America is looking forward to what might happen -- more so than I am,'' Smith said. ''But I'm not going to sit here and say I had 140 yards in the first half last time so I'm going to have the same thing again this week. I'm not going to say that. That is not likely to happen again. That might be a one time every five years kind of thing. But we do have an opportunity.''
The Cowboys missed two field goal attempts early that night, so coach Chan Gailey is upbeat about his team's chances.
''We have to feel pretty good walking into that arena, because we could've been ahead 23-0,'' Gailey said.
The Vikings' 27th-ranked defense has improved since then, with John Randle moved inside and former wide receiver Robert Tate bolstering the secondary.
The Cowboys trust the return of Leon Lett, who was serving another drug suspension the last time these teams met, will counter Randle's move.
''It ain't going to be easy, not by any means,'' Smith said. ''I've seen these guys shut down Barry Sanders. I've seen it happen. What makes you think they cannot shut me down?''
The Vikings were without their own running back -- Robert Smith -- in the first meeting. He's back from hernia surgery and has teamed with Cris Carter and Randy Moss to make Minnesota every bit the explosive threat it was a year ago, when they went 15-1, then slipped up in the playoffs against Atlanta.
''I think that's one of the big keys to their offense right now is that Robert has returned and is playing well and giving them a threat from anywhere on the field,'' Gailey said.
The Cowboys are a 1-7 team on the road and limped into the playoffs at 8-8, but quarterback Troy Aikman said none of that matters now.
''I think there's a certain mentality that would like to have us feel as though we didn't deserve to make it, but we're not even the No. 6 seeded team. We went in as the No. 5 team,'' Aikman said. ''I think it just says where the league is, in particular where the NFC is.''
The Vikings are considered the NFC team with the best shot at upsetting prohibitive favorite St. Louis in the Super Bowl sweepstakes. But the Vikings aren't forgetting that the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
''So, they still have what we would call the heart of a champion,'' Carter said.
Thanks to Emmitt Smith.
End advance for Sunday, Jan. 9
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