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PRO FOOTBALL / BOB OATES : Cowboys Get Call of Wild

After Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith came from behind to win the NFL rushing title Sunday, somebody on the Dallas team had to take over for Santa Claus.

After all, the Cowboys are proud of Smith--who defeated Thurman Thomas, who sat out the last game, and Barry Sanders, who didn’t--and proud of themselves. They won the last five games of one of the season’s most demanding schedules.

When no one else volunteered, Smith played Santa himself, and, bringing in 45 bottles of expensive champagne, left a bottle in the locker of each teammate.

“This present is to the team for the season,” he said. “I’m spending my playoff money before I get it.”

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By the time the playoffs are over, Smith may have more spending money than he is counting on now. If the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills are the NFL’s best this year, the Cowboys have rushed up suddenly to a candidacy for third best.

In any case, they have played like one of the elite teams lately, defeating Washington, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Atlanta since Coach Jimmy Johnson turned them around in November.

And as pro football’s postseason begins with four first-round games this weekend, the Cowboys are in the featured game, having drawn the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field Sunday morning.

It is wild-card weekend. Those playing are six second- or third-place teams and two division champions, New Orleans and Houston--and, as usual, all four home teams are favored:

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RAIDERS (9-7) at KANSAS CITY (10-6)

Saturday, 9:30 a.m.

The Todd Marinovich story continues. How much will be play? And how well will he play?

A veteran of one game as a Raider quarterback, Marinovich yields one advantage to the Chiefs: They have had a week to study him.

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Entering the tournament as a wild-card team, the Raiders, who have won one Super Bowl as a wild card, raise a couple of other questions:

Is it even possible that they have considered using Jay Schroeder this week?

Isn’t it true that any defensive team losing to Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg has only itself to blame?

ATLANTA FALCONS (10-6) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5)

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Saturday, 1 p.m.

Going into the weekend, this has the look of the most amusing game of the bunch: Jerry Glanville raising hell in New Orleans, Deion Sanders tracking quarterback Bobby Hebert.

In his second season as coach of the Falcons, who were 5-11 last year, Glanville was asked if last week’s loss to Dallas impaired their confidence.

“Not us,” he said. “We just got through winning five straight.”

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The Saints won seven in a row. Then they lost Hebert and four in a row before he returned to lead them to a division championship for the first time in their history--an achievement that has made Saint fans delirious.

One of them, Ilene Jacobs, 39, told Associated Press writer Mary Foster: “We are so excited. We used to sit in the rain and cold (at Tulane Stadium) and watch them lose. Can you imagine what it’s like now? It’s the greatest moment of my life.”

Said Linda Stewart, 38: “I just hoped I’d live to see it, and I have.”

The Falcons, with quarterback Chris Miller and offensive coach June Jones, have come up with one of the league’s most improved passing teams, throwing at times to Sanders, the gold-plated cornerback who doubles at wide receiver.

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Against California opponents this year, the Falcons are 6-0. And they are 3-0 on the road in their division, having won in New Orleans, 23-20.

But the Saints won in Atlanta, 27-6. And Glanville’s team may have peaked during its five-game tear. By comparison, the Saints, with Hebert and a splendid rookie ballcarrier, Fred McAfee, seem to have it all back to where it was when they were on their seven-game streak.

DALLAS COWBOYS (11-5) at CHICAGO BEARS (11-5)

Sunday, 9:30 a.m.

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On a neutral field, the Cowboys might do unto the Bears what San Francisco did to them Monday night, when the 49ers poured it on, 52-14.

That was unsportsmanlike conduct. It was also childish for San Francisco’s players and coaches to work out their frustrations on a beaten team simply because they missed the playoffs.

If the 49ers had made the playoffs, they wouldn’t have lasted very long. The 1991 Bears aren’t great, either. They just have a great coach.

The remarkable thing about Mike Ditka’s Bears is that they almost never lose to teams they ought to beat. “We can be pounded, I guess, if you’re (explosive) enough, but you aren’t going to upset us,” linebacker Mike Singletary said.

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The Bears split this year with Detroit’s division champions. Otherwise, the Bears were 7-0 in the NFC Central, whereas Detroit, for example, managed to lose to 3-13 Tampa Bay.

Ditka will have the Bears ready again Sunday, when they will have three other advantages. Their quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, is tough and competent; their field is a murderous place to play in mid-winter and they have had the most recent playoff experience.

So the Bears are favored, but perhaps falsely. For under Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys are a team on the rise--and on a roll--with not one but two gifted quarterbacks, Steve Beuerlein and Troy Aikman.

Most NFL coaches and scouts say the Cowboys are a year away. If so, get out of their way next year.

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NEW YORK JETS (8-8) at HOUSTON OILERS (11-5)

Sunday, 1 p.m.

In a season when 12 of the NFL’s 28 teams won 10 or more games, two of them didn’t make the playoffs, but a .500 team did.

The Jets, however, aren’t merely another .500 club. They battled Houston to the end in October, when the Oilers won, 23-20. New York was twice in position to beat the AFC champion Buffalo Bills. And it beat the Miami Dolphins twice, putting Dan Marino and Don Shula out of the playoffs.

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Nonetheless, the Jets, under second-year Coach Bruce Coslet, are playing to the level of their opponents. They even lost this fall to Indianapolis, the Colts’ only victory.

“I think we’re on our way, but we didn’t expect to get this far this year,” said Jet General Manager Dick Steinberg, who has led his team from 4-12 to the playoffs in two years.

Although Jet quarterback Ken O’Brien has played inconsistently, his club will have one edge in the Astrodome. It can run the ball. Steinberg built the offensive line first, and four Jet backs are capable of big days: Freeman McNeil, Brad Baxter, Johnny Hector, and inconsistent Blair Thomas.

They will strive to keep the ball away from Houston quarterback Warren Moon, who runs Coach Jack Pardee’s run-and-shoot offense with four wide receivers who are also all capable of big days--Haywood Jeffires and Drew Hill among them.

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If the Oilers had a running game, they wouldn’t be playing on wild-card weekend. Their one flaw is about to undo the great run-and-shoot experiment this year--but probably not in this game.

* COACH OF THE YEAR

Wayne Fontes is honored after leading the Detroit Lions to their first playoff berth in eight years. C7


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