Cowboys are the team to beat in playoffs

The Dallas defense smothered Philadelphia and quarterback Donovan McNabb on Sunday. Tim Heitman/US Presswire

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If you were hoping for another tight NFC East battle with a lot on the line, Cowboys Stadium wasn't the place to be Sunday afternoon. The Cowboys not only locked up a home playoff game next Saturday night, but they thoroughly embarrassed an Eagles team that had won its previous six games.

I had my doubts that the Cowboys could beat the Eagles three times in the same season, but that was before I observed their first possession Sunday. Quite simply, Dallas has become the most complete team in the NFC -- and it couldn't have happened at a better time.

This was a team that's spent the past 13 seasons fading down the stretch, but after Sunday's 24-0 beatdown of the Eagles, the Cowboys should be the most confident team in the playoffs. They've already won on the road in New Orleans and let's not act like the Vikings are rolling again simply because they disposed of a dying Giants team.

I realize that a different Eagles team could show up next weekend, but for now this appears to be an excellent matchup for the Cowboys. From the opening snap Sunday, Dallas was by far the more physical team. Running back Marion Barber, a man who hasn't embraced daylight this season, had three carries for 58 yards on the first possession. It set the tone for one of the most punishing performances of the season on both sides of the ball.

I realize that Andy Reid has a better playoff pedigree than Wade Phillips, but it became painfully obvious Sunday that he's outmanned against this Cowboys team. Eagles apologists might point to a botched snap in the second quarter as the turning point in the game, but they already trailed 14-0 and a score would've only delayed the inevitable.

For all I know, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may still be conducting interviews in the home locker room. He gleefully admitted that he'd already "drawn up the paperwork" for Phillips' new contract, although he stopped short of offering his coach a pen. Even Phillips gave himself a pat on the back after the game, joking that the Cowboys' defensive coordinator "did a good job." And with all the grief this man has taken for his late-season failures, who could blame him for taking a swipe at his critics?

The Cowboys simply got sick of being everyone's favorite December punching bag and came out swinging the past three weeks. And when things started to go south last month with losses to the Giants and Chargers, Phillips continued to believe in his players.

"We're a real strong-minded team," he said after the game. "We're real confident right now. We said it going into New Orleans ... They act like champs. They play like champs. I think that's a big part of it."

I fully expect that Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will come up with a different game plan on Saturday, but I'm not sure it will matter. The Cowboys were so successful in the running game early that McDermott asked his safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage. That opened up the middle of the field for quick slants to Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton, who combined for 189 yards and a touchdown.

The other issue is that the Eagles don't have anyone who can cover Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. He finished with six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Will Witherspoon had no hope against him and safety Quintin Mikell didn't fare much better. There's also the factor of cornerback Asante Samuel constantly gambling for interceptions. He caused one interception but his risky ways led to Witten's 10-yard touchdown and a 40-yard catch by Austin.

On defense, the Cowboys shut down one of the most prolific offenses in the league. It's the first time in club history the Cowboys have recorded back-to-back shutouts. The Eagles hadn't been shut out since Dec. 5, 2005, against Seattle. The immortal Mike McMahon was under center for that game.

Cowboys linebacker Bradie James sacked Donovan McNabb on the Eagles' first possession and the quarterback never found a rhythm. Even when DeSean Jackson beat Terence Newman on a deep route, McNabb overthrew him by 5 yards.

Reid had so much respect for the Cowboys' defense that he used a lot of maximum-protection schemes. That meant that McNabb had fewer targets, making it easier on the Cowboys' secondary. Jackson may be one of the most feared receivers in the league, but he has come up empty in two games against the Cowboys this season. McNabb attempted eight throws in his direction, but Jackson had only had three catches for 47 yards. The Cowboys doubled him at times, but they didn't do anything drastic.

"I think teams think too much about stopping Jackson," said Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins, who's very familiar with the Eagles wide receiver because the two have trained together in the past. "You have to focus on staying over the top with him. If you start obsessing about him, you can get in trouble."

Crayton said he expects to see a completely different Eagles team this weekend. He estimated that McDermott only blitzed about 40 percent of the time and he expected that number to be closer to 60 percent on Saturday night.

"We have to almost treat them like a different team," Crayton said. "It will be the same personnel, but I think we'll see a much different approach."

And while I realize the Cowboys are perfectly capable of losing this game, I don't see it happening.