Close losses, a struggling offense and a seemingly endless run of injuries don't matter to the Dallas Cowboys anymore. They're going to the NFC playoffs anyway.
Jason Tucker turned a short catch into a 90-yard touchdown, Raghib Ismail caught a 4-yard TD pass and Eddie Murray kicked four field goals as Dallas beat the New York Giants 26-18 Sunday to claim the NFC's final wild-card berth. The Cowboys advance to a first-round game Sunday in Minnesota.
``I thought today was the first sign of a team actually trying to come together,'' said Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, who ran for 122 yards. ``I think we have something to build on and be confident about. It's been a long time since we've been able to put something together like we did today.''
The Cowboys thought they were going to miss the playoffs after losing their last two games to the New York Jets and New Orleans. Instead, they snagged the fifth seed despite an 8-8 record. None of the three teams that made the playoffs at 8-8 in previous years won a game.
``Our team has had some very emotional ups and downs this season, and we've hung together. Now we've got an opportunity to do something that's never been done before,'' Dallas coach Chan Gailey said.
It should be no surprise the Cowboys got in with a home victory. They were 7-1 at Texas Stadium and 1-7 on the road, including a 27-17 loss to the Vikings in November.
New York (7-9) knew it was virtually eliminated from the playoffs by kickoff because Green Bay beat Arizona 49-24, which meant the Giants would've had to win by 81 points. Instead, they lost their third straight and sixth of eight.
But New York didn't give up.
The Giants were down 16-0 at halftime and 23-3 after Tucker's long touchdown, then got a 1-yard touchdown by Joe Montgomery early in the fourth quarter and a 7-yard TD pass to Brian Alford with 57 seconds left, followed by a 2-point conversion by Montgomery. The comeback bid ended when Dallas recovered an onside kick.
``We didn't look like a team that went out there with no emotion,'' Giants coach Jim Fassel said. ``I'm disappointed to end the season this way. I've got an empty feeling in my stomach.''
Both teams came in having supposedly been fired up by loud pep talks from their owners.
Dallas' Jerry Jones apparently was more effective in his speech to veterans than was New York's Wellington Mara, whose brief talk might have stunned players more than anything because he's usually so quiet.
Tucker gave the Cowboys a flying start by returning the opening kickoff 79 yards to the New York 5. His third-quarter touchdown - which tied the longest in the NFL this season - virtually sealed the game and atoned for a wide-open pass he dropped in the end zone just before halftime.
The Cowboys should've led by more than 16 at halftime, but the offense showed the same inconsistency that has plagued them all season.
Dallas had first-and-goal from the 5 and 6 on its first two drives, but had to settle for field goals of 20 and 21 yards by Murray.
``Those things have a tendency to come back and bite you,'' said quarterback Troy Aikman, who was 23-of-38 for 288 yards. ``Luckily, it didn't.''
The Cowboys appeared headed for another choke before Ismail's touchdown as first-and-goal from the 10 turned into third down from the 4. Then Tucker's dropped touchdown led to a 27-yarder by Murray, who also kicked a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter.
While the Giants had to be happy the game was so close at halftime, they also had reason to be disappointed. They crossed midfield on every first-half possession, but never got past the 34. They had 146 of their 380 yards in the fourth quarter.
``It was a game we probably should've won,'' Giants safety Percy Ellsworth said. ``They did what they are paid to do. They made plays, we didn't.''
Smith's performance was redeeming considering the Giants held him to 26 yards on 22 carries in New York's 13-10 victory in October. His ninth 100-yard game this season capped his best year since 1995, his best ever.
Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, who had been 3-0 against the Cowboys, was 31-of-48 for 314 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Tiki Barber, the hero of the October victory, caught 13 passes for 100 yards. Joe Jurevicius caught a 71-yarder to set up Montgomery's touchdown.
Amani Toomer caught two passes to give him 79 for the season, setting the club record. His 35 yards receiving left him with 1,183, 26 shy of that team mark. Ike Hilliard caught five passes for 37 yards, leaving him four shy of making him and Toomer the first 1,000-yard duo in team history.
Tucker, who set a team record with 331 total yards last week, had 215 yards. He caught four passes for 122 yards and returned two kickoffs 93 yards.