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At one point in the 80[degree] heat at Sun Devil Stadium on
Sunday, the Cowboys fielded a defense that included safeties
Roger Harper and Charlie Williams, cornerback Wendell Davis,
linebacker Randall Godfrey and tackle Hurvin McCormack--hardly
household names. The stars were elsewhere: end Charles Haley in
a Dallas suburb recuperating from back surgery that will
probably sideline him for the rest of this season; tackle Leon
Lett lying low after being slapped last week with a one-year
drug suspension; corner Deion Sanders in the locker room getting
treatment for back spasms that hit him during pregame warmups.

The Cowboys beat the Cardinals 10-6, surviving despite an
offense that most of the time looked more like that of the 1996
Saints than the one that drove Dallas to the Super Bowl three of
the past four seasons. But with all the chinks in the Cowboys'
personal and professional armor, one thing is clear: Opponents
still have reason to fear Dallas. On Sunday wideout Michael
Irvin ran up 198 yards on eight receptions, most of them against
Aeneas Williams, one of the league's best cornerbacks. "You take
a poll of all the playoff contenders," Dallas guard Nate Newton
said after the Cowboys, at 9-5, had moved into sole possession
of the NFC East lead for the first time this season. "Ask 'em:
'What team don't you want to play?' We've been beaten down by
the salary cap and the will of God, but I guarantee you, we'll
make Green Bay grab their privates if we play them again."

God didn't direct Lett to abuse drugs, but that's another
matter. After losing Lett, one of the league's premier defensive
players, Dallas was written off by many around the NFL. So the
Cowboys spent the days leading up to the game against the
Cardinals developing an us-against-the-world mentality. "Circle
the wagons," defensive coordinator Dave Campo told his players,
"because nobody's on our side but us."

Dallas still has the league's top-ranked defense, which limited
Arizona to a pair of field goals, and a respectable defensive
tackle rotation led by Chad Hennings and the reinvigorated Tony
Casillas. But Packers quarterback Brett Favre, whose attack was
shut down 21-6 by the Cowboys on Nov. 18, is all too familiar
with the way Lett can disrupt an offense. "When we played Dallas
our philosophy was: Leon Lett will not beat us," says Favre.
"Leon on artificial turf is unstoppable, and we had to plan
every play with him in mind. We double-teamed him on every play.
Now if we play Dallas, we'll be able to block the tackles with
one guy each and maybe double one of their ends, depending on
the situation."

Then he chuckled. "One thing you have to admire about Dallas is
that every time you say, 'They can't do it,' what do they do?
They always do it. You can't kill 'em."


NFL scouts have some advice for a couple of college juniors who
are contemplating whether to enter the draft: Ohio State tackle
Orlando Pace should declare for the April proceedings, but
Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning should stay in school.

"Pace is the best offensive lineman I've ever seen in college
football," says one personnel director. "There's nothing he
can't do. He can pancake one guy, and he has the attitude and
ability to keep going and pancake another one. I think Pace is a
physical freak. Lawrence Taylor was a physical freak, a player
who is bigger and stronger and faster than everybody else at his
position. Players like that are so rare, you drool when one
comes along."

Scouts love Manning's potential, but they point to his mediocre
1996 season and, with the exception of the Patriots' Drew
Bledsoe, the struggling careers of quarterbacks who have left
college early for the draft. "It's crucial that young
quarterbacks play as many games as they can play," says one
personnel director. "Manning should look at the Heath Shulers to
see what happens many times when young quarterbacks come out


This off-season the Steelers again will lead the league in
marquee players on the free-agent market, with their top rusher
(running back Jerome Bettis), leading interceptor (cornerback
Rod Woodson), top sacker (linebacker Chad Brown) and leading
receiver (wideout Andre Hastings) all eligible to sign with
another team.

It's a particularly bad year for Pittsburgh to have all those
jewels up for bid, because the salary cap is likely to be raised
only about 2% to 4% next season. The Steelers won't have a lot
of room to maneuver, and they refuse to mortgage the future by
paying huge signing bonuses or exploiting other cap
loopholes--one reason they didn't re-sign any of the 14 starters
who became free agents the past four years.

Bettis and Brown will surely become $3 million-a-year players,
after earning $620,000 and $348,000, respectively, this season.
At 31, Woodson may have lost a step, but he will likely get an
offer in the neighborhood of the $3 million he is making in
1996. Hastings could jump from $361,000 to $1.5 million, but
with the depth the Steelers have at wide receiver, he won't make
that leap in Pittsburgh.

Bettis, Brown and Woodson all appear comfortable with the
Steelers' philosophy regarding free-agent negotiations. "I could
take less money and be happy here," says Woodson, who is winding
up his 10th season in Pittsburgh. "You've got to weigh what you
have here--a winning team and knowing you'll always be in the
playoffs--versus going to someone like the Bucs or the Jets and
not knowing if you'll win in the next couple of years, or ever."

At 24, Bettis is on pace for his best rushing season ever, with
1,412 yards through 14 games. He knows he could make a killing
on the open market, but he also knows he's in the perfect place
for him: on a team that likes to run the football. "I know what
numbers I could put up here, and history means something to me,"
he says. "The question is, How big will the gap be between what
the Steelers offer and what is offered elsewhere?"


There's a division between Dolphins veterans and rookies because
coach Jimmy Johnson continues to give the kids opportunities to
take the older guys' jobs. Before Miami's 17-7 loss to the
Giants on Sunday, Johnson made a new rule for his 6-8 team: The
rookies no longer have to do demeaning chores for the vets, such
as fetching sandwiches. "Tell those guys to shove their
sandwiches up their ass," Johnson told the rookies....Ricky
Watters's teammates on the Eagles have quietly ripped his
selfishness for two seasons, but in balloting to pick team award
winners last week, the vote for offensive MVP spoke volumes:
Watters, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher, finished third behind
wideout Irving Fryar and quarterback Ty Detmer....A bit of
holiday cheer from the 1-13 Jets, who have lost 35-10, 35-10 and
34-10 in the last three weeks. Says rookie wideout Keyshawn
Johnson, "I've never seen as much negativity as I've seen since
I've been associated with this football program."


The Saints' 31-15 loss to the Falcons on Sunday was interim
coach Rick Venturi's 50th career game as a head coach. He's
2-47-1 with Northwestern, the Colts and the Saints. "The good
Lord makes you endure," he says, "but I think I've had enough."

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS With Lett suspended, Hennings was double-teamed more often, but still got a sack and forced a fumble. [Chad Hennings and two others in game]

COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Brown leads Pittsburgh with 13 sacks, but as a free agent he may bag quarterbacks elsewhere in '97. [Chad Brown tackling Sean Salisbury]