Can Cowboys Party Like It's 1992?

IRVING, Tex. - We now know that Prince, formerly known as "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,'' will participate in this year's Super Bowl. We know that when he sings of "a pocket full of horses'' he's not talking Broncos, and when he sings of his "lion. ... ready 2 roar,'' he's not talking Detroit.

And, with visions of Janet Jackson's sugarplum dancing in our YouTube-filled heads, we know that the telecast of this title game will therefore have at least three viewers:

F. C. And C.

One of the things we don't know: Which NFC team will "party like it's 1999'' -- or, in the case of the Super Bowl-pedigreed Cowboys, "party like it's 1992, 1993 and 1995''?

What are the odds of a date in Miami for "The Artists Formerly Known As America's Team''? Oh, and how much does the fact that the Cowboys seemed to stumble down the regular-season stretch doom Dallas' shot at success?

It was funny the other week hearing Mike Lupica on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters'' trying to assess the who's who of the NFC. With a sort of dumbfounded look and voice, Lupica said, incredulously, "The New Orleans Saints actually have a chance to be in the Super Bowl!''

Um, gee, Lip, you think? I mean, yeah, they pretty much have at least a one-in-six chance. Logic says pretty much the same thing. The reality of the NFC is that it seems a two-team race: The Bears, with home-field -- and nasty home-field conditions to boot -- make sense as a strong favorite. The Saints have established that they are as "for-real'' as any team in the NFL short of San Diego (an AFC power) and Chicago.

And then there is. ... everybody else, and yeah, that includes the Dallas Cowboys. And while the case we're about to make might be a situation where I'm using numbers to tell you your eyes are lyin', let me try, while again relying on the dumbfoundedness of a network voice.

It was Fox' Brian Baldinger who, during the Cowboys humiliating 39-31 failure against the Lions, expressed the commonly-held view that a playoff team "must be peaking'' as it exits the regular season and marches into the tournament.

"This,'' Baldy said of Dallas' struggles, "is not what a playoff team does.''

For the second time this week, I'm sorry to have to spit these numbers at you: This year, coach Bill Parcells' unit was1-3 down the stretch. Last year he was 2-4. In '04 he was 1-3. In '03 he was 2-3. A four-year stretch-run record of 6-13 hardly makes these Cowboys look like finishers.

So there is that evidence of a coming disaster in Seattle on Saturday night. And, there is this defense of Baldinger: he played under coach Tom Landry, who often espoused the same "gotta-close-strong'' philosophy. Imagine the "dumbfounded'' look on the late Coach Landry's face, then (and I say this respectfully) when I, in a visit with the coach a few years ago, informed Landry of actual Cowboys history and some numbers (made up-to-date as of Sunday):

Of the 30 Cowboys playoff teams, 19 of them won their regular-season finale. A 19-11 record is good -- but it hardly suggests some "America's Team'' domination or some correlation between how Dallas finishes one part of a season and will start the next.

Some more numbers:

* The '66 team won its last game, qualified for the NFL Championship Game, and lost to Green Bay. The '67 team -- essentially the same squad -- lost its last game. Yet it suffered the same exact result, an NFL Championship Game loss to Green Bay.

* Similarly, the '70 Cowboys finished 3-0 and lost the Super Bowl. The next season, another 3-0 finish led to a Super Bowl victory.

* Tom Landry playoff teams in the back-to-back-to-back seasons of '82, '83 and '84 not only all lost their regular-season finales -- they all finished 0-3.

* Barry Switzer's great teams in '94 and '95 didn't much need "momentum-grabbing'' closes. In '94, Dallas finished 1-2 in its final three games but still advanced to a classic NFC title game. In '95 Dallas was just 2-2 down the stretch, but won the Super Bowl.

* In 11 of the 29 years, the Cowboys have closed regular seasons 3-0 -- and four of those times, Dallas won the Super Bowl.

That last number is the sort of stat clunking around in the memory banks of the "experts.'' But there's a chicken-or-the-egg thing going on here: Did, for instance, Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys win a Super Bowl in '92 because they were propelled by a crummy showing against Chicago in a Dec. 27 home game in which Curvin Richards kept fumbling but Dallas won anyway, 27-14? Or did Johnson's Cowboys teams win Super Bowls (and overcome mistakes against opponents good and bad) because they deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest football clubs ever assembled?

So again, closing the season by streaking at 3-0 is nice. And it helps get that Super Bowl feeling going. And while Lupica is dumbfounded and Baldinger is dumbfounded and the great Coach Landry is rolling over in his grave at the thought, the fact is this:

It's no more a guarantee of tournament success than a season-closing loss is a guarantee of tournament failure.

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