Aikman rescues Cowboys: ONE DAY IN AMERICA

AMERICAN FOOTBALL; Matt Tench reports on the skirmish before the Cowboys' big battle

The Dallas Cowboys warmed up for their most important game of the regular season by posting their least convincing victory on Sunday. And for the Cowboys of '96, that takes some doing.

In five days' time they come face to face with their creator, Jimmy Johnson, a confrontation laden with personal and professional connotations. By common consent Johnson, in his first year at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, is ahead of schedule as he attempts to make to make his new team the relentless winners the Cowboys once were. By common consent also, the Cowboys - now coached by the charismatic but unconvincing Barry Switzer - are nowhere near the force that has won three Super Bowls in the last four years.

The visit of the winless Atlanta Falcons seemed the ideal fixture to prepare the Cowboys for the bigger battles to come, but even the league's patsies can give the Boys a run for their money these days. The Falcons led 28-25 deep into the fourth quarter. A 60-yard touchdown pass from Troy Aikman to Kelvin Martin secured a somewhat fortuitous win, but did little to dispel the feeling that something is rotten in the state of Switzer-land.

Miami's preparation was far from ideal either, beaten 35-28 in Philadelphia. Irving Fryar, released by the ruthless Johnson, caught four TD passes from Ty Detmer. "They probably still don't want me back," Fryar said. The Dolphins were no more impressive against the run, with Ricky Watters rumbling for 173 yards.

The shock of the day nearly came in San Francisco, where the 49ers trailed Cincinnati 21-0 with both their front-line quarterbacks having been knocked from the game. At this point a limping Steve Young, having already aggravated his troublesome groin injury, returned to the field and demonstrated why the 49ers pay him $5m a year.

He passed for 274 yards, including two TDs, but saved the best until last, limping into the end zone for the winning score with 68 seconds left. "You could not ask for a more gutsy performance," Young's head coach, George Seifert, said after the 28-21 win.

That game was the Bengals last under Dave Shula, who yesterday became the season's first head coaching casualty when he was sacked and replaced for the rest of the season by his offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet. Shula was followed later in the day by Jim Mora, who resigned as coach of the New Orleans Saints. Mora, had coached the Saints since 1986, the longest tenure with one team of any current National Football League coach. He was the first coach in Saints' history to post a winning record, and he took the team to the play-offs four times.

Results, standings, Digest, page 25

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