After days of hard rain, the underfoot conditions at Candlestick Park were so treacherous yesterday that the Cowboys were planning to rehearse their plays for today's match, which sees the two strongest teams in the National Football League contesting a place in Super Bowl XXIX, in the ballroom of their hotel.
The Cowboys' bid to achieve the "three-peat", a record third successive Super Bowl, rests largely on the fitness of their running back Emmitt Smith, who injured a hamstring in his side's play-off victory over Green Bay last week. Smith has had intensive treatment all week - a member of the Cowboys' medical staff even moved in with him - but the Dallas head coach, Barry Switzer, said yesterday that the No 22 would definitely play.
"Emmitt will start," Switzer said. "But whether he plays five plays, seven plays or 10 plays, we don't know. He's got problems with his wheels, and when you have problems with your wheels, it's hard to go 100 per cent," he said. Smith is determined to play in the Cowboys' drive towards history and is unworried about the soggy conditions. "I'm a pretty good mudder," he said. "I'll be out there."
While there are many fascinating match-ups in today's game - not least the contest between the game's highest-rated quarterbacks, Steve Young of the 49ers and the Cowboys' Troy Aikman - the head-to-head confrontation that pits Michael Irvin, the explosi v e Dallas wide receiver, against the 49er defensive back Deion Sanders promises to be key to the outcome. Sanders, who has seven interceptions this season, is one of the quickest men in the backfield, and many teams have avoided throwing anywhere near him . But Irvin, who has played a big part in the Cowboys' two Super Bowl triumphs, said yesterday: "I like it when the challenge is great".
For Dallas, the challenge is to go where no team has gone before. The 49ers won the regular season game between the two sides 21-14 last November, but at this stage in the past two seasons, the Cowboys have defeated their opponents on the way to the Super Bowl. "We are at a crossroads in history where we could become the NFL's greatest team," the Dallas owner, Jerry Jones, said yesterday.
The winners in San Francisco will meet the team that wins the AFC Championship - for which the Pittsburgh Steelers play the San Diego Chargers at home today - in the Super Bowl in Miami on 29 January.
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