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Memory Lane: Cowboys and Vikings clash in Triplets’ swan song season

Ahead of Sunday night’s game, we look back 20 years ago when the Dallas Cowboys were in the waning years of the Aikman/Smith/Irvin era facing the Minnesota Vikings
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith (22) runs for five yards to score a touchdown as he drags along Minnesota Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman (56) in the first quarter in Minneapolis, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2000. At left is Vikings Dwayne Rudd (57) and at right is Vikings Kailee Wong (52). (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

DALLAS — The day after the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Indianapolis Colts 34-24 to fall to 4-3 on the 1999 season, running back Emmitt Smith lost one of his heroes when Hall of Fame running back and the NFL's all-time leader in rushing yards, Walter Payton, died from complications from his rare liver disease.

According to an interview in 2002's "The Story of Emmitt Smith: Run with History," the three-time Super Bowl champion wanted to break Payton's record of single-game rushing yards of 275, set against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 20, 1977, to honor the former Chicago Bears rusher. Smith would have his chance in Week 9 as the Cowboys traveled to Minnesota to face the Vikings on Monday Night Football on Nov. 8.

It was a turbulent season for the Cowboys. They started 3-0, but had fallen on hard times since Oct. 10 when they lost receiver Michael Irvin, the heart of the Triplets, to a career-ending neck injury. The Cowboys were 1-3 since that time and were having a hard time keeping pace with the NFC East-leading Washington club at 5-2, despite having swept them in the season series.

Dallas needed a win to avoid their second losing streak of the season.

The Vikings weren't the same video game offense from a season ago. They stumbled out of the gate 2-4, but had secured wins in their last two games to improve their record to 4-4. Coach Dennis Green benched Randall Cunningham, the quarterback for that 15-1 team that was an overtime field goal away from going to the Super Bowl, in favor of journeyman and draft bust Jeff George.

With the whole nation watching on Monday Night Football with Al Michaels and Boomer Esiason calling the action from the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the game started off as a tilt between two mediocre teams as each side traded missed field goals on their opening drives. Dallas kicker Richie Cunningham missed tries from 42 and 37 yards out while Minnesota's Gary Anderson was in NFC Championship Game form with a 49-yarder no good.

After a scoreless first quarter, Smith had 49 yards. He was 226 away from breaking Payton's record.

The Cowboys struck first blood when Cunningham hit a 39-yard field goal with 11:21 to go in the second quarter. The Cowboys defense also turned the Vikings three-and-out on their next two drives, with a Dallas three-and-out sandwiched in between, and that is when Smith finally got his chance to chase Payton.

With 6:31 to go until halftime, on a first-and-10 from their own 37, Smith busted off a 63-yard touchdown run to push Dallas ahead 10-0. The Super Bowl XXVIII MVP now had 160 to go to break Payton's record.

On the ensuing kickoff, rookie linebacker Dat Nguyen forced a Vikings fumble and Dallas recovered at the Minnesota 24. The very next play from scrimmage, and Smith is gone again for the end zone. Along the way, he tangles his fingers inside the face mask of a Vikings defender, breaking them in the process. It is the closest Smith would come to honoring his idol, 140 yards, as his night was over.

In the context of the game, Dallas had to protect a 17-0 lead for a little over a full half with receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter on the other side while Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman had no one of that caliber to throw or hand-off to.

The Cowboys turned the Vikings over three-and-out on the next drive, but a bad exchange on a third-and-5 with center Mark Stepnoski led to the Vikings recovering at the Dallas 21-yard line. Minnesota drove and George found Moss for a 4-yard touchdown to chip into the Cowboys' lead 17-7, a lead Dallas would have to protect coming out of the break.

If the Cowboys could turn the rest of the game into a defensive struggle, it would be their best shot. For instance, on the Vikings' opening drive of the second half, they wasted a big play from Carter when he caught a 39-yard pass to get inside the Dallas red zone. The drive culminated in a 31-yard Anderson field goal to make it 17-10 Cowboys.

The problem was Aikman was taking sacks now that Dallas lacked a credible run threat with Smith done for the night. Running back Chris Warren had one carry for eight yards by that point in the game. The predicament compounded when defensive tackle Jerry Ball sacked Aikman and knocked him out of the game. Now, it was up to backup Jason Garrett to get Dallas out of the Twin Cities with a win in prime time.

Garrett had a favorable start when the Vikings, again, settled for an Anderson field goal of 40 yards. The Cowboys were protecting a 17-13 lead with 4:40 left in the third quarter ⁠— well, 19:40 left in the game. Aside from a pass interference on the first play, Garrett was unable to pick up a first down on his first drive, and Warren took one carry for no gain.

By that point, the Cowboys defense had given the best they could. Maybe the momentum would have swung back to Dallas for good if safety George Teague's interception at the 1-yard line would have stood, if not for cornerback Deion Sanders' illegal contact that nullified it. Instead, the Vikings drive continued, and with 13:43 to go in the game, George capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Carter to take the lead 20-17.

Of the Cowboys' next 14 offensive plays over the span of four drives, Warren's 24-yard run was the only first down. Garrett threw an interception. Dallas turned over on downs on the final drive. Garrett went 3-of-11 for four yards and an interception in Aikman's absence. And he was probably going to lead Dallas against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers the next week without Smith and Irvin, too.

Izell Reese was the safety who got the interception of George that counted, even if it ended in a 27-17 loss for Dallas. Reese’s position coach that night was Mike Zimmer, the same Zimmer who will lead the Vikings Sunday night into AT&T Stadium looking for a win over the Cowboys, now coached by Garrett. The two have immense respect for one another, but barring a prime time tie, only one can emerge victorious from this 31st entry in the Cowboys-Vikings series.

What are your memories of classic Cowboys vs Vikings matchups? Share them with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.