Now the Dallas Cowboys know why they should have drafted Randy Moss when they had the chance.
Randall Cunningham threw four touchdown passes against a secondary lost without Deion Sanders, including three to the rookie phenom, and the Minnesota Vikings just about clinched first place in the NFC Central with a 46-36 victory Thursday over the Cowboys.
Another Vikings victory or a Green Bay loss would wrap up the division title for Minnesota, which has an NFC-best record of 11-1. Dallas dropped to 8-4 but still has a 1½-game lead over Arizona in the NFC East.
"Luckily Deion was hurt, but injuries happen," Moss said. "A lot of people wanted to see our matchup. I had to make it happen anyway."
Dallas, which lost despite a career-high 455 yards from Troy Aikman, picked defensive end Greg Ellis instead of Moss in the first round of this year's draft. Owner Jerry Jones said the image-tarnished Cowboys couldn't take a chance because of his off-the field problems.
On the field Thursday, the Cowboys were terrorized by the 6-foot-4 receiver, who towered over the small defensive backs.
Moss caught only three passes, but each went for a touchdown, two for 56 yards and another for 51. He also drew a 50-yard interference penalty that set up another score.
In addition, Cunningham also had a 54-yard TD pass to Cris Carter.
"Everytime I throw deep, I think he's going to catch it," Cunningham said. "I throw it up there even when he's covered because he will go up and get it. I was thankful Dallas didn't take him in the draft. And I'm glad all those other teams passed on him, too."
Moss wouldn't talk to print reporters after the game, saying "yu'all not TV. I have nothing to say."
His teammates had plenty to say.
"It was a tough call for the Cowboys," Carter said. "It's easy to say now they should have taken him. They weren't the only team to pass."
Leroy Hoard, subbing for injured Robert Smith, ran 12 and 50 yards for touchdowns as Dallas allowed the fourth-most points in franchise history, the most since Minnesota scored 54 on Oct. 18, 1970.
"I would have been very surprised if someone told me that I would have 455 yards passing and we would lose," said Aikman, who completed 34 of 56 passes. "We had our chances but penalties and dropped passes killed us on offense. We can still do the things we want to do despite this loss."
Cunningham came out throwing against the Sanders-less secondary. Sanders sat out the game with a sprained left big toe.
Moss outran double-coverage for a 51-yard touchdown from Cunningham on a classic flea-flicker. Smith took a handoff and pitched back to Cunningham. Cornerback Kevin Smith and safety Darren Woodson took the fake and were late in coverage.
Carter also beat double coverage on the Vikings second possession, running free behind cornerback Charlie Williams and safety Kenny Wheaton to catch a 54-yard touchdown pass.
"Deion would have made a difference," Wheaton said.
Williams seconded the notion.
"The best cover man on our team and in the league didn't play," he said. "Moss made the plays where we should have."
Moss scored again on Minnesota's third possession, beating Smith in single coverage on a 56-yard pass from Cunningham.
"They just made a ton of big plays," Dallas coach Chan Gailey said. "We tried to mix up defenses against them and keep Randall off balance but it didn't work. You can't lose a player of Deion's quality."
Dallas got field goals of 30 and 46 from Richie Cunningham and a 67-yard scoring pass from Aikman to Pat Jeffers, who scored his first NFL touchdown.
Minnesota got a 45-yard field goal from Gary Anderson just before the half ended for a 24-12 lead.
Smith sprained a knee in the first half and missed the rest of the game.
Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys scored on three short runs in the second half but Dallas couldn't match the Vikings firepower.
Hoard scored on a 12-yard run after Kenny Wheaton interfered with Moss for a 50-yard penalty.
On his third touchdown, Moss took a short pass, shook off a tackle by Charlie Williams, and scored on a 56-yard play.
Hoard came right back with a 50-yard run against the tiring Dallas defense after Smith's second touchdown.
Smith's third touchdown run, a 4-yarder, came with 1:06 left and tied him with Marcus Allen for first place on the career rushing touchdown list with 123.
Cunningham completed 17 of 35 passes for 359 yards, and Carter caught 7 passes for 135 yards.
Michael Irvin caught 10 passes for 137 yards.
"Everyone said we were going to find out how god we were," Aikman said. "I think they are awfully good and we're pretty good too."
© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved