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SNAP TO WHISTLE, the play lasted 10 seconds, tops. When it was
over, you knew in your bones the Boys were back. In the days
after the Dallas Cowboys were gangster-slapped all over their
own stadium by the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 12, the question
on everyone's mind was how, or if, they would recover.

Deion Sanders provided an emphatic answer late in the first
quarter of Sunday's game between the Cowboys and the Oakland
Raiders, teams that entered the game with identical 8-2 records
but with different agendas. On the rebound after 11 consecutive
seasons without a Super Bowl appearance, the Raiders sought
recognition as one of the NFL's elite teams. Dallas sought to
recoup the self-esteem of which it had been stripped the
previous week. That the Cowboys, 34-21 winners, would prevail
was all but assured when Sanders, the $35 million cornerback,
made a play that justified his preferred moniker, Prime Time.

On the first play of Oakland's third possession, Raider
quarterback Jeff Hostetler went up top for wideout Raghib
(Rocket) Ismail, who had a step on Sanders. What followed raised
the possibility that wily old Hoss had been baited. Sanders
closed on the Rocket like a Tomahawk missile and made a leaping

It wasn't the pick so much as the panache subsequently displayed
by Prime Time that gave one the impression that this was not
Oakland's day. For the first 10 yards of his ensuing 34-yard
runback, Sanders held the ball up for the inspection of the
Raider bench and the 54,092 fans at Oakland-Alameda County
Coliseum. It was an incredibly brassy act that Sanders alone
among NFL players could get away with. "I was just giving the
fans a little something," he explained afterward, to "get them
involved in the game."

In addition to ensuring that the good people of Oakland got
their money's worth, the considerate Sanders was helping
restore the swagger to the Cowboys' collective step. Following
the 49er debacle, the NFL's most braggadocian team had begun to
doubt itself. The loss hurt the team "deep, very deep,"
according to Emmitt Smith, who seemed to have gotten over it by
Sunday, as he rushed for 110 yards and three touchdowns. His
first trip into the Emmitt Zone was set up by Sanders's
interception and gave Dallas a 14-0 lead, a cushion that had
grown to 31-14 by the fourth quarter.

Although the Cowboys played atrociously in losing 38-20 to the
49ers seven days earlier, they completely dominated the first
three quarters of the Raider game. Dallas quarterback Troy
Aikman, enjoying the cocoonlike protection provided by his line,
completed 19 of 24 passes for 227 yards, including a 17-yard
touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Irvin that made the
score 7-0.

Indeed, one of the keys to this game was the ease with which
Aikman connected with Irvin, who caught seven passes for 109
yards. Despite the success the 49ers enjoyed by double-covering
Irvin a week earlier, Oakland chose to trust the man-to-man
coverage skills of cornerbacks Terry McDaniel and Albert Lewis,
and it was punished for its hubris. On his touchdown catch Irvin
toyed with McDaniel, who is widely acknowledged to be the
second-best cover corner in the league. Selling McDaniel on a
fake to the flag, Irvin then broke over the middle for an easy

"He made a great move, and I didn't make the play," said
McDaniel, who shouldn't have had to make the play. With the
Cowboys facing third-and-12 earlier in the drive, Lewis had been
flagged for pass interference on Irvin--a 34-yard penalty. Had he
not drawn that flag, "we could have been off the field," Lewis
later lamented.

Raider wideout Tim Brown had a lament of his own: "Why we didn't
double cover Michael Irvin, I don't know."

If Cowboy defensive coordinator Dave Campo was smiling as he
boarded the team bus, it was because he was relieved that it was
some other guy's turn to be second-guessed. After Niner receiver
Jerry Rice had run wild against the Cowboys, Campo spent the
week taking heat. When he arrived at his office at 7:30 Monday
morning to review 49er video, Campo was joined by team owner
Jerry Jones and Jones's son Stephen, a team vice president. "It
was not the most pleasant day of Dave Campo's life," says the
elder Jones.

Nor was it pleasant for Jones. While dining at a Dallas
restaurant that night, he was approached by two gentlemen, one
of whom bore a piece of pie, which he placed on the Joneses'
table. The dessert included a note: "Jerry: A slice of humble
pie. Enjoy. 49ers Fans." Jones reacted with aplomb, shaking
hands with the practical jokers and saying, "I hope we give
y'all a better game next time."

It was a quiet week around Valley Ranch, the Cowboy training
facility. "A lot quieter than usual," said center Ray Donaldson
on Friday. "The usual talkers weren't talking. You get your ass
kicked like we did, there's nothing much to talk about."

A tragedy contributed to the subdued atmosphere. On Thursday,
Kristopher Brown, the 10-week-old son of starting right
cornerback Larry Brown, died, having been taken off life-support
systems the previous day. The funeral for Kristopher, who was
born prematurely in September, was Saturday. Coach Barry Switzer
made it clear to Brown that he was not expected to play again
until he felt like it, but Jones's private jet was left at
Brown's disposal. To the Cowboys' surprise, Brown flew to
Oakland on Saturday night and played Sunday, contributing five

"This was the best way for him to deal with his grief," said
Campo. "It would have been one thing if he was just out there
playing, but he played damn well. I can't give the kid enough

The Cowboy secondary had already lost two starters: Cornerback
Kevin Smith ruptured his Achilles tendon in the opener and was
lost for the season. And on Nov. 3, cornerback Clayton Holmes
was suspended for being a repeat violator of the league's
substance abuse policy. Holmes's punishment was announced on the
same day as that of defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was also
suspended for a positive drug test. Though Holmes reportedly
will be suspended for the rest of the season, Lett is scheduled
to return from his four-game suspension on Dec. 3.

Undermanned, with their confidence shaken, the Cowboys prepared
for Oakland. "I wish we could play somebody a little softer,"
said guard Nate Newton, "but we got the Raiders, and they're a
great team."

Sunday's result proved that to be an exaggeration. Still, the
Raiders are much improved, and they are, if not great, at least
very good. Al Davis may be a ruthless megalomaniac who dresses
each day as if for a Vegas lounge act, but he deserves credit
for cleaning up a big mess (albeit, one of his own making) in a
big hurry. Last season--their 13th and final one in Los
Angeles--the Raiders were ill-coached, ill-disciplined and split
into more factions than the field of contestants in a beauty

Since then Davis has pushed most of the right buttons. Mike
White, a dark horse at best to replace Art Shell as coach, has
proved an inspired choice. With its multiple formations and
balanced attack, White's offense has been a welcome replacement
for the antediluvian Raider attacks of yore. The difference
between the offense this season and last? "Like using the Dewey
decimal system and using a computer," says guard Steve
Wisniewski. "Thirty years," says Brown, who took advantage of
the new and improved scheme to amass his best statistical day of
the season: 12 catches, 161 yards and one touchdown.

On the other side of the ball, Davis has assembled a marauding
defense anchored by a superb front four. It features Chester
McGlockton, a human monster truck who has emerged as one of the
best all-around defensive tackles in the game, and end Pat
Swilling, the Raiders' latest reclamation project, who could be
this season's comeback player of the year. Convinced that
Swilling was washed up, the Detroit Lions benched him midway
through last season. One afternoon in the off-season, the
30-year-old Swilling took a call from a man with a familiar,
raspy voice who asked, "How would you like ta be a Raiduh?"

The Lions had Swilling dropping back into pass coverage, which
is comparable to welding a shovel to your Lamborghini and using
it to plow snow. Swilling is brilliant at one thing--rushing the
passer, and that is all the Raiders ask of him. At week's end
Swilling had nine sacks, the Lions 23.

Swilling didn't get so much as a sniff of Aikman on Sunday, as
the Raiders knocked heads with what may well be the best
offensive line in the game. Whereas Aikman was sacked once, by
Oakland end Anthony Smith, the Raider offensive line yielded not
a single sack, which is not to say its protection was flawless;
Hostetler had already released a pass late in the first half
when Cowboy defensive tackle Chad Hennings pile-drove him into
the turf. That shot reaggravated a left-shoulder injury
Hostetler had suffered a week earlier and knocked him out of the

In a captivating subplot Hostetler was relieved by Vince Evans,
that darling of the senior set, who rallied the Raiders to two
late touchdowns. So spry and strong-armed is the 40-year-old
Evans, one suspects him of having struck some Faustian bargain.
Evans was so effective on Sunday, throwing for 232 yards in the
second half alone, that some Raiders felt he should have gotten
the start over the dinged-up Hostetler.

"I don't think Hoss was 100 percent," said wideout James Jett.
"I think the better guy came in."

Clearly, his teammates have confidence in Evans. That's good,
since at week's end it appeared that Hostetler could miss
Monday's game at San Diego. If Hoss recovers slowly, the oldest
player in the NFL could be the starter in the most important
game remaining on Oakland's schedule, the Raiders' Dec. 3
rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs, now 10-1, won
their earlier game and could be the Raiders' largest obstacle to
reaching the Super Bowl.

Thoughts of the Chiefs, incidentally, kept Dallas from fully
enjoying its victory. The Cowboys headed back to Texas on Sunday
unhappy in the knowledge that they would be lining up against
Kansas City four days later, on Thanksgiving.

At least it would be a home game. Following their day with the
ladies and gentlemen in the skull-and-crossbones regalia, the
Cowboys were ready for the friendly confines of Texas Stadium.
Before the Raider game, as the Cowboys disembarked from the team
bus, they had been received by a silver-and-black mob that
showered them with epithets and, to a lesser extent, refuse.

"That's a rough crowd, I'm telling you," said 6'5", 305-pound
offensive tackle Mark Tuinei. "They were nasty."

At the Oakland Coliseum the distance between the visitors' bench
and the barricade holding the masses at bay is approximately
eight feet. To look on as the Raider fans screamed at the
Cowboys in the waning minutes of Sunday's game was to understand
why, in some soccer-playing nations, fans are separated from
players by moats.

When the home team lost the ball on downs, and with it all hope
for a win, one guy in his early 20's shouted, "O.K., defense,
let's do some damage. Hurt somebody!"

Another guy insulted Aikman's mother. There was a lull, then
someone shouted this friendly request: "Hey Cowboys, beat the
hell out of the Chiefs!"

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Irvin walked the walk after grabbing a 17-yard touchdown pass. [Michael Irvin]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PETER READ MILLER Deion's timing was prime as he snatched the ball from Ismail and took off on a taunting 34-yard return. [Series of photos showing Deion Sanders intercepting football intended for Raghib (Rocket) Ismail]

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [See caption above--Deion Sanders holding football above head while running]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER As the Raiders discovered, it takes more than a hand tackle to keep Smith out of the Emmitt Zone. [Emmitt Smith carrying football as Oakland Raider grabs his jersey]

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Hennings corralled Hoss in the second quarter, driving him to the turf--and out of action for the day. [Chad Hennings tackling Jeff Hostetler]

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [See caption above--Jeff Hostetler lying on field surrounded by attendants]