The NFL brought back instant replay for one smoke-filled, emotion-wrought evening Sunday.
Upon further review, the Dallas Cowboys are still high-stepping toward history.
And the Buffalo Bills are still falling all over themselves.
For a second consecutive Super Bowl for the Cowboys, Emmitt Smith ran tirelessly, Troy Aikman threw effortlessly and Jimmy Johnson got his hair messed up.
For a second consecutive Super Bowl for the Bills, Thurman Thomas lost a big fumble and then hid on the bench.
For a second consecutive year, the Bills were screaming and flinging their helmets while the Cowboys were turning over Gatorade coolers, this time in celebration of a 30-13 victory in Super Bowl XXVIII.
Not that this is getting old, but the Cowboys showed almost as much sympathy as swagger.
“We felt sorry for them,” Dallas receiver Michael Irvin said of the Bills. “But we couldn’t help them.”
At this point, it appears nobody can. This makes four Super Bowl losses in a row for the Bills, extending their record streak while tying a record for most losses overall.
Including their 52-17 loss to the Cowboys in last year’s Super Bowl, they have been outscored by 66 points in those losses, an average of 16.5 points per loss.
Not that anybody was surprised, but the 17-point margin Sunday equaled the number of points the Cowboys scored after Bills mistakes.
“Sometimes you feel like you are beating your head against the wall,” Buffalo special teams veteran Steve Tasker said.
The biggest of those mistakes this year was a fumble by Thomas that Cowboy safety James Washington returned 46 yards for the tying touchdown early in the second half.
“What does it feel like?” Bill linebacker Darryl Talley asked. “It’s a bitch, that’s what it is. It hurts. And it hurts deeply.”
What does it feel like to be a Cowboy?
“Utterly unbelievable,” defensive end Jim Jeffcoat said. “I think people are going to remember this for a long time.”
If for no other reason than that Johnson and owner Jerry Jones actually hugged.
“There’s been a lot of talk this year about us being at each other’s throats,” Johnson said. “Well, after this kind of thing, the only thing you do with each other’s throats is hug them.”
If you are the Bills, you grab your throat.
This first happened in the first minute of the second half, with the Bills leading, 13-6, after dominating the first two quarters.
The Cowboys had had trouble adjusting to the Bills’ no-huddle offense. Jim Kelly had thrown for 176 yards. Emmitt Smith had been held to 41.
Sure, Thomas had committed a fumble that had led to a Cowboy field goal, but then Nate Odomes had stopped a late Cowboy drive with an interception.
And the Bills thought the Cowboys were worried.
“Shoot, there was nobody screaming or anything in our locker room,” Cowboy guard Nate Newton said. “Not to be cocky, but we already thought we had the game won. We knew we would beat them down eventually. And when we did, then it would be over.”
The beginning of the end came when Thomas, working from the Bills’ 43-yard line on the first possession of the second half, took a handoff and ran smack into Leon Lett.
Lett did what Johnson teaches all of the Cowboys to do. He grabbed for the ball.
Because Thomas was carrying it one-handed and loosely, it was an easy pick. The ball bounced toward the sideline and into the arms of Washington, who weaved through the stunned Bills for a touchdown.
Suddenly the score was tied. And Thomas was, strangely, tired.
He carried only two more times the rest of the game, spending most of it on the bench with leg cramps. He finished with 16 carries for 37 yards.
“Thurman will be Thurman,” Kelly said later.
And if Washington is to be believed, sections of South-Central Los Angeles will be celebrating.
“This is for everybody I know back in Watts,” said Washington, a former Ram who grew up there before attending UCLA. “I want them to see me showing people that I can do it, and do it for them.”
Although Lett, known primarily for gaffes in last year’s Super Bowl and on Thanksgiving, wouldn’t gloat, he also proved a point.
“Everybody thinks the guy is a real dummy,” defensive end Charles Haley said. “Just watch that play and you see the real Leon Lett.”
Said Lett: “We try to do that every day in practice. They tell us to make a play.”
Thomas, who bounced his helmet off the carpet and shrugged off teammates’ attempts at consolation after the fumble, admitted it was more than a head-turner. It was a game-turner.
“The momentum was all for us, then all against us,” he said. “It didn’t just change it then, but for the rest of the game.”
It certainly changed it for the next six minutes. During that time, with a haze still hanging underneath the dome after halftime fireworks, the Cowboys made the Bills’ hopes disappear.
Now caught in a 13-13 tie, the Bills lasted only three plays on their ensuing drive.
Not that the Cowboys were fired up, but Jeffcoat and Haley muscled past the Bills’ offensive line and sacked Kelly for a 14-yard loss on third down, their first sack of the game.
The Cowboys took over on the 36 and took off on the go-ahead drive, a 64-yard march conducted almost exclusively on the back of Smith.
Using a play known in the Cowboy playbook as “Power Right,” Smith ran behind pulling guard Newton, fullback Daryl Johnston, and regular right-side offensive linemen Kevin Gogan and Erik Williams.
“We ran about the same play every time,” Newton said. “Why not? They weren’t moving.”
The drive was so overwhelming, Bill defenders Bruce Smith, Phil Hansen and Talley all left the field with injuries before it was finished.
“They were breathing hard, we knew they were whipped,” Newton said.
By the time the drive ended, with Smith’s 15-yard touchdown run that pretty much clinched his MVP award on the spot, the Bills knew they were done.
“We just couldn’t stop them,” Bruce Smith said. “They ran the same plays, but we just couldn’t stop them.”
The Cowboys put the game away with a 34-yard drive early in the fourth quarter. Dallas had claimed the ball on an interception by Washington, who said he would have complained about not winning the MVP except for one thing.
He and Smith were in the same fraternity, even though Smith was at University of Florida. It was Phi Beta Sigma.
“And I take care of my frat bro’,” Washington said.
Smith then took care of everybody, making it 27-13 by scoring on a one-yard run on fourth and goal with 9:50 remaining.
“I felt if we went for it then, we could pretty much nail that coffin,” Johnson said.
And so what about nailing down a place in history?
The Cowboys are only the fifth team to win consecutive Super Bowls. They have tied the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers as the only teams with four Super Bowl victories.
And Jimmy Johnson is now 7-1 in the postseason--second best in history behind Vince Lombardi’s 9-1--while Aikman is 6-0.
Did anybody say dynasty?
“Dynasty?” Newton said, eyes wide. “That’s a TV show, man. We don’t care about last year or next year. We’re having too much fun now.”
He would get no arguments from the Bills. Not last year, and not now.
* COVERAGE: C4-12