IRVING, Texas -- Four weeks ago, the Philadelphia Eagles were 5-6 and facing the worrisome prospect of playing out the string without starting quarterback Donovan McNabb, lost to a season-ending knee injury.
Fast-forward one month to Monday night, and the Eagles were a team exuding holiday cheer and a new lease on postseason life. Kicker David Akers even led a triumphant medley of Christmas carols as the joyous Eagles bounded into their locker room after a 23-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys that put Philadelphia in the playoffs and on the verge of a fifth division title in six years.
"We still haven't peaked," promised Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. "We're still getting better every game."
The Eagles (9-6) certainly made believers of the Cowboys (9-6), who had hoped to treat a Texas Stadium Christmas crowd of 62,839 to the clinching of their first NFC East championship since 1998.
Instead, the Eagles, after sweeping the two-game season series with Dallas, now lead the division with one week left after a performance the Cowboys could only regard as their season's biggest embarrassment.
"We were noncompetitive tonight," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. "We really didn't do a good job, and I take responsibility for that. It didn't look like we were too well prepared. ... We did not have a chance to compete tonight."
The Cowboys entered Monday as the only team in the NFL to score at least 17 points in every game this season. But only a touchdown reception by former Eagles receiver Terrell Owens in the final minute of the first half averted a shutout for Dallas. It was the lone scoring throw for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who passed for a season-low (as a starter) 142 yards and was intercepted twice.
The Cowboys' defense, meanwhile, appeared wholly unprepared to contain elusive Eagles quarterback Jeff Garcia, who passed for 238 yards, scrambled for 43 more and is 4-1 since taking over for injured McNabb.
"At the point of the season where [Garcia] came in, our team needed to fight. And he's a fighter," Westbrook said. "He's a fiery guy, and I think the team rallied around him."
The Eagles had to win three consecutive road games against division opponents in Washington, New York and Dallas to clinch their playoff berth, a gauntlet of scheduling Philadelphia coach Andy Reid jokingly called "a cakewalk."
"The guys stepped up," Reid said. "We've put ourselves in position to do something, but we haven't done it yet. But each one of these games was huge, and the guys really buckled down."
Eagles wide receiver Donte' Stallworth said this stretch of schedule "looked imposing to other people, not to us."
"We were the only ones who believed. And I hope we continue to be the only ones who believe. We want everybody to continue to say who we can't beat."
The Eagles will clinch the NFC East for the fifth time since 2001 if they defeat the 7-8 Atlanta Falcons next Sunday in Philadelphia. Dallas can win the division only with a victory over visiting Detroit coupled with an Eagles loss.
The only interruption in the Eagles' current title streak was last season, when they finished 6-10 and fourth in the division after suspending Owens after the seventh game of the season for conduct deemed detrimental to the team.
Owens managed one touchdown against his former teammates Monday, but otherwise was not much of a factor. He caught only two passes for 23 yards and hurt his team with two costly drops, resulting in widespread boos from the home crowd.
"It's very disappointing," Owens said. "It's nothing personal. We want to win as a team and just didn't make any plays. It's not necessarily embarrassing that we lost to them, but by the way we played offensively."
The Cowboys were outgained 426 yards to 201. Westbrook rushed for 122 yards on 26 carries, and Dallas as a team managed just 83 yards on the ground.
"At the point of the season where [Garcia] came in, our team needed to fight. And he's a fighter. He's a fiery guy, and I think the team rallied around him."
Brian Westbrook on Eagles QB Jeff Garcia
The Eagles never trailed, and they scored on four of their first five possessions to surge to a 16-7 lead early in the third quarter against a Cowboys team that first appeared overconfident, then uninspired.
"I just saw us take control of the game," Garcia said. "It wasn't about them; it was about us. And I just saw us take control of the game and never look back."
The Eagles scored on their first possession, mounting an 89-yard scoring drive that culminated with Garcia's 25-yard touchdown strike to tight end Matt Schobel.
After the Cowboys' Miles Austin fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Eagles were poised to strike again quickly, taking over at the Dallas 40-yard line. But Garcia, who had thrown only one interception in his first 167 pass attempts for the Eagles, tossed a floater toward Stallworth in the right flat that was picked off by Anthony Henry and returned 37 yards.
Dallas marched the ball to the Eagles 1-yard line on second down. But the Eagles' defense stiffened and repelled running back Marion Barber III on three consecutive plays. Blitzing safety Quintin Mikell streaked untouched around the right side on fourth down, throwing Barber for a 3-yard loss and no score after Parcells elected not to kick a short field goal.
"I wanted to try to give our team some momentum," Parcells explained. "Retrospectively, we probably should have kicked the field goal because the play didn't work."
The goal-line failure seemed to suck the life from the Cowboys and their crowd, and Philadelphia responded with another 89-yard scoring drive, this one ending in Akers' 25-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.
The Cowboys, who entered the game with the league's third highest-scoring offense (27.6 points per game), were shut out until the final minute of the first half. Romo scrambled to his left and found Owens in the end zone for a 14-yard TD pass, bringing Dallas within 10-7 with 36 seconds left and seemingly giving the Cowboys a lift heading into the locker room.
However, that was ample time for Garcia to expose the soft Dallas defense again. He led the Eagles 38 yards on six plays, setting up a 45-yard field goal by Akers with one second left for a 13-7 halftime lead.
"We're better than that," Dallas defensive lineman Jason Ferguson said. "We're just not playing hard every play the way we're supposed to. We're giving up big plays, and that's out of character for us. But it's starting to be our character. It's getting embarrassing."
The Eagles took the second-half kickoff and drove 77 yards in seven plays, setting up a 21-yard field goal by Akers for a 16-7 lead. Dallas' next four possessions ended with two punts and two interceptions. When Correll Buckhalter's 1-yard TD plunge capped another 80-yard drive for the Eagles with 6:54 left in the fourth quarter, the deficit was 16 points and fans were streaming for the exits, unsure how serious a postseason contender their Cowboys really are.
"You don't scratch your head; you sit back and want to punch a wall," Cowboys receiver Patrick Crayton said. "We had it in front of us. We controlled our destiny, and now they have an opportunity to win it next week.
"I guess we showed tonight that, right now, we aren't at playoff-caliber ball. And if we don't straighten it up, we will be out early and watching everyone else play for Miami [site of Super Bowl XLI]."
Ken Daley is a freelance writer based in North Texas.