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Cowboys Feel at Home on the Road : NFC: Fired-up Dallas adds the Bears to its list of vanquished opposition, 17-13.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are young, operating without their No. 1 quarterback, not used to playing meaningful games after November--forget about January--and keep on getting dealt road games against teams who consider home losses a freak of nature.

And these cocky Dallas Cowboys, bless their nouveau riche souls, just keep on winning.

Sunday, the Cowboys muscled out a 17-13 wild-card playoff victory over the postseason-tested Chicago Bears, who now can watch Dallas move on to play the Detroit Lions in Round 2 of the NFC playoffs.

Only two years separated from a 1-15 record, the Cowboys, who hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1982 season, are only two victories from the Super Bowl.

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Sunday’s game was the kind a playoff-naive team is supposed to lose--a tense, field-position battle in a swirling wind, on a slippery field, decided by a handful of big plays at the goal line.

Didn’t the Cowboys know that Chicago, loaded with veterans and led by Coach Mike Ditka, lives for this sort of late-December game?

“Maybe we’re just ignorant,” wide receiver Michael Irvin said, grinning impishly.

Maybe the Cowboys are simply playing too well right now to care. In previous weeks, Dallas journeyed into the home stadiums of the Washington Redskins (who were undefeated at the time) and Philadelphia Eagles (who had not lost to Dallas since 1987) and won.

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For the Cowboys, anything seems possible, any football field acceptable.

Dallas is 6-0 since backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein stepped in to replace Troy Aikman, who was out with an injured knee but now is healthy enough to play.

“We’ve had a lot of obstacles to hurdle,” safety Bill Bates said. “Beating Washington inWashington, that was a big one. Then the biggest one was probably Philadelphia, because we hadn’t beaten them in a long time. Then we went to their place and beat them, and our confidence just soared.

“After we cleared that last big hurdle, we’ve just kept running.”

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Once Dallas’ Emmitt Smith, the NFL rushing leader, got running Sunday, the Bears found it difficult to slow the Cowboys down.

Said Dallas Coach Jimmy Johnson: “They told us, ‘This bunch hasn’t been to the playoffs before, and Chicago has the playoff experience. . . .’ (But) our guys have played some very big ballgames on the road and games where some people felt like we were overmatched.

“Going to RFK and beating Washington, going to Philadelphia and beating Philadelphia, I think that prepared us to come here and to play Chicago.”

Led by Smith’s 105 yards in 26 carries and a combined 171 receiving yards by Irvin and Alvin Harper, the Cowboys played consistent, no-turnover football and held on tight after taking a 17-6 third-quarter lead.

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The Dallas defense forced the Bears to turn the ball over three times, blocked a punt that resulted in a touchdown, sacked scrambling Jim Harbaugh three times and, most crucially, prevented the Bears from scoring a touchdown three times after they got the ball inside the Dallas 10-yard line.

The last stop came at the end of an 18-play Bear drive in the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys clinging to the 11-point lead. The drive was keyed by a 15-yard pass out of punt formation from Maury Buford to linebacker Ron Rivera.

The Bears got to the Dallas seven-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs when Harbaugh was hit by Ray Horton while throwing a fourth-down pass.

“We just couldn’t punch it across the goal line,” Harbaugh said. “We kept coming back. We just couldn’t put it in the end zone. We were going on some long drives and coming away with nothing.”

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Another big stop came in the second quarter, with Dallas ahead, 10-3. On fourth and goal from the two, with fullback Brad Muster out of the game with a sprained ankle, tailback Neal Anderson swept wide right and was stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

“If we had kicked a field goal, we would’ve lost by one point,” Ditka said. “I really had no question in my mind that we would get it in. But we didn’t.”

Now, Dallas goes on to Detroit, where the Lions are the only team in the league with a perfect home record.

Earlier this year, in Week 8 in the Silverdome, Detroit bombed Dallas, 34-10. But the Cowboys, flying high after this victory, assured everyone around them that this was a far better team than the one that faced Detroit back in October.

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“Detroit is just another road game for us,” linebacker Ken Norton said casually.

“And we are definitely not the same team that we were then. That’s been a bitter taste we’ve had in our mouths since then, and when we looked at the playoffs, we knew we wanted a chance to go back up there and go get them.”

But one member of this young, talkative team didn’t want to start thinking about the Lions or another road game or anything else for a while. He just wanted to soak in a victory, in December, in Chicago, in the face of everyone who ever said the Cowboys could not do it.

“Before this year started, nobody expected us to be in the playoffs,” Irvin said. “People laughed at us. So let me enjoy this right now.

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“We’re going to be having so much fun on that plane on the ride back it might just drop right out of the sky. So watch out.”


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