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Back in the saddle again // NFC

Nobody still dreaming about Super Bowl XXX is as rich in stars as the Dallas Cowboys. What bums the rest of the league is that their talent is the only thing deeper than their owner's pockets.

So it warmed the heart to see the Cowboys enjoying a few laughs at their own expense.

Especially Deion $anders.

The $35-million defensive back had not contributed much to the Cowboys since signing as a free agent. But Sanders proved Sunday to be worth the wait in gold.

Making an enormous impact on offense, defense and special teams, Sanders recorded his first Cowboys touchdown on a 21-yard reverse and intercepted a pass to set up another TD to lead the Cowboys to a 30-11 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

The victory earned the Cowboys their fourth straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game. They will host the Green Bay Packers, a team they've defeated six straight times, including 34-24 this season.

For Prime Time, it was about time.

"That's my nickname. The big guys have got to come out in the big games," Sanders said. "You must do that. That's why they pay us the money they do. If we don't, you guys are damned sure going to let us know we're overpaid. All year I haven't earned a damned dime. The big players have got to come out in the big games, and this is it. You lose this, you're going home."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spent $62-million in salaries and signing bonuses this season _ by far the most of any team in the NFL _ to retain his top players and swipe the mega-talented Sanders from the San Francisco 49ers.

It paid off against the Eagles on Sunday.

In addition to Sanders' heroics, running back Emmitt Smith rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Troy Aikman passed efficiently for 253 yards and a TD. And wide receiver Michael Irvin, although blanketed by Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor with help from double-coverage, made his only reception of the day count with a 9-yard TD catch.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys' defense held Philadelphia to just 227 total yards, recorded five sacks and knocked starting quarterback Rodney Peete out of the game on the final play of the first quarter with a concussion.

"It was a great defensive effort. But let's be honest. They dropped some balls. They didn't play as well as they can play," said Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. "They had to change their whole game plan when Rodney went out."

Despite being 13{-point favorites, Switzer and the Cowboys had reason to be wary of the Eagles.

They had a fresh reminder not to be overconfident after having watched the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers get shocked at home by the Packers on Saturday.

And nobody would let Switzer forget about his calamitous gambit on fourth and 1 on the Cowboys' 29-yard line with two minutes left in their loss at Philadelphia last month.

Switzer's only decision was to play it safe and take the easy field goal when the Cowboys took the second-half kickoff and drove the length of the field before stalling on the Eagles' 1.

"I was glad it was a different situation," Switzer said. "We kicked their a--. If we'd played like that a few weeks ago, it wouldn't have come down to fourth and 1. Let's bury that (S.O.B.)."

The Cowboys buried Philadelphia by owning an 11-minute difference in time of possession and brilliantly mixing the run and the pass.

But it was Sanders who gave them the big lift with his own version of the one-man double reverse.

Lining up at wide receiver, he took a handoff from Aikman on a reverse to the left, then reversed field to the right when he saw Eagles defensive end Mike Mamula had the corner sealed. Sanders then exploded down the right sideline to the Cowboys' first TD.

"He don't have no moves," said Smith. "But he's fast as all get out."

"I think today was the first time anybody (in Dallas) ever saw that great burst of speed, that acceleration and explosion," Switzer said.

Before Sunday's game, Sanders had returned only one punt and one kickoff this season for the Cowboys. But he figures to have a bigger role in Dallas' drive to win an unprecedented third Super Bowl in four years.

But don't think Sanders regrets missing another shot at the 49ers.

"Shoot, I guess you didn't see the Green Bay Packers?" Sanders said. "Give them a little credit.

"I just had a feeling that one of us (the 49ers or the Cowboys) wouldn't make it. We're still playing and they're sitting at home. Thank God for that."

Big chill

Sunday's 26-degree temperature at kickoff (the wind chill was minus-6) made it the third-coldest playoff game in Cowboys history and the coldest game ever at Texas Stadium. The post-season list:

Date Opp. Score Temp.

12/31/67 at Packers L, 17-21 -13

1/11/81 at Eagles L, 7-20 16

1/7/96 vs. Eagles W, 30-11 26

12/28/75 at Vikings W, 17-14 27

12/26/83 L.A. Rams L, 17-27 27