Boys, left for dead in October, are on fire

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The hottest team in the NFC is a team that looked dead in October.

The Dallas Cowboys have won three straight heading into the postseason and finally, finally this team, along with some in the organization, appear to realize that how you play at the end of the year might dictate how far you go in January.

Dallas clinched the NFC East title, its second in three seasons, with a commanding 24-0 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.

It sets up a third meeting between the teams in the opening round of the NFC playoffs Saturday. It's hard to beat a team three times in one season, but the way the Cowboys are playing, it might not be an issue.

"You go ask anybody, who wants to play us right now?" inside linebacker Bradie James asked.

The Cowboys have allowed an NFC-low 250 points this season and face a team with problems.

The Eagles, who had their six-game winning streak snapped, have to find a way to get deep balls to speed receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

In two meetings with the Cowboys, Jackson and Maclin have no touchdowns. Quarterback Donovan McNabb threw to them 15 times Sunday, and the pair caught just six passes.

The Eagles also have to find a way to protect McNabb. The Cowboys' defense sacked McNabb eight times in two games and was credited with five quarterback hits and five passes defensed Sunday.

"The Cowboys' defense applied pressure," McNabb said. "We had many opportunities that we did not capitalize on. A lot of mistakes were made. We had a lot on the line, but he have an opportunity to go home and watch film and to re-examine our mistakes and come back next weekend after understanding what we did wrong."

Said Eagles coach Andy Reid: "We have to go to the drawing board and do a better job as coaches and as players."

That's what happened to the Cowboys in Kansas City on Oct. 11. The Kansas City Chiefs were a winless team and were outplaying the Cowboys for most of the game that day, but wide receiver Miles Austin's franchise-record 250 receiving yards saved the season. The Cowboys won in overtime, 26-20, and many people at Valley Ranch started to believe.

Dallas won four straight games before losing at Green Bay on Nov. 15. The Cowboys would then win an ugly game the next week against the Washington Redskins and then defeated the Oakland Raiders on Thanksgiving Day.

The December demons popped up again when the Cowboys lost in consecutive weeks to the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers.

But this team didn't panic. Maybe another team, a team that went 13-3 back in 2007, would have.

In fact, the Cowboys learned from a disappointing 9-7 season in 2008, in which they were knocked out of the playoff picture in a regular-season loss to the Eagles. Final score that day: 44-6.

"I think we all learned a lot from last year, from the front office to the players," James said. "As far as distractions, the leadership on the team, we're not having it. That allows us to get to this point."

Should the Cowboys get past the Eagles, things would get interesting.

The Minnesota Vikings, losers of three of their past five games, would be next. The New Orleans Saints have lost three straight, and the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers don't look like world beaters.

That leaves us with the Cowboys, who appear ready to end a hex in which they haven't won a playoff game since 1996. In the locker room after the game, several Cowboys players wore gray NFC East champion hats. Coach Wade Phillips told the team he was proud of them but to not forget the big goal of winning the next week, again against the Eagles.

The players nodded and understood the season is just beginning.

"The response to this win is exactly what it needed to be," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "It's 'let's move on.' I think that's a sign of maturity. I thought that was the greatest thing."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.