It's hard to believe that we are not even a week removed from writing Wade Phillips' epitaph as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It would have read something like, "One of best regular-season coaches of his time."
But suddenly we've had to call tombstone rewrite because on a wild Saturday night in the French Quarter, Phillips and his team may have rescued their season with a 24-17 win over the previously unbeaten Saints. If the Saints had lost a couple of weeks earlier to the Redskins, you could have attributed it to a lack of focus, but none other than Drew Brees admitted New Orleans had circled the Cowboys game on its schedule before the season.
No matter what they say now, the Saints and their adoring fans thought a win over the Cowboys would be the cherry on top of a brilliant regular season. But a funny thing happened on the way to perfection. We realized the flaws that showed up in close wins over the Redskins and Falcons could turn out to be full-blown warts.
And suddenly, two NFC East teams that have stumbled at times this season appear to be peaking at the right time. After winning five consecutive games, the Eagles have clinched a playoff spot and now a No. 2 seed isn't completely out of question. If you've seen Ed Werder's frozen mustache in the past 24 hours, you know Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and coach Brad Childress do not appear to be on the same page. Werder has done some excellent reporting that suggests Favre is frustrated by Childress' apparent lack of interest in discussing the game plans with him during the week. If Favre doesn't get his way, he's prepared to move the Vikings to Los Angeles without Childress.
But seriously, this is not a Vikings team that should scare either the Eagles or Cowboys. Philadelphia walked into the Metrodome last January and dispatched the Tarvaris Jackson-led Vikings in a wild-card playoff game. This is certainly a different team with Favre, but Andy Reid knows a thing or two about the 40-year-old quarterback.
And it's not as if the Cowboys are intimidated by Favre. They knocked him out of a game in 2007 while handing the Packers their first loss of the season. A lot of us spent the first 14 weeks of this season thinking it was a foregone conclusion that either the Saints or Vikings would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. But things have changed.
The Eagles are the hottest team in the NFC at the moment and they're about to welcome Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook back to the lineup. We were ready to bury the Cowboys after back-to-back losses to the Giants and Chargers, but their win in New Orleans was the most impressive moment of the Phillips era. Don't look now, but everyone's favorite December punching bag, Tony Romo, is having a remarkable month. He hasn't thrown an interception in his past four games and he seems to be clicking with Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
Who else scares you in the NFC? The Packers were making noise for a few weeks, but the same defense that nearly shut out the Cowboys in November yielded 503 yards passing and three touchdowns to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers last Sunday. At 9-5, the Cardinals are a dangerous team, but I don't feel like their offense is as potent now that former coordinator Todd Haley is in Kansas City.
That leaves the Giants as the only other team with a legitimate shot of making the playoffs. They have to win their final two games against the Panthers and Vikings and hope that the Cowboys stumble against either the Redskins or Eagles. Of course, they'll also be monitoring the Packers.
It's starting to look like the Vikings and Saints may have peaked too early. At this point, I don't see any reason the Eagles or the Cowboys couldn't make a deep playoff run. If you've studied recent playoff history, you know that having a playoff bye isn't always the best thing. The Cowboys went 13-3 in '07 and lost to the Giants in the divisional round. Last season, the Giants lost to the Eagles in a divisional playoff. I remember Giants defensive end Justin Tuck telling me after that game that he thought the layoff hurt his team.
"I'd rather just keep playing games," he told me at the time. "It's just better for our rhythm."
If that trend holds up, you have to like the Cowboys' and Eagles' chances.