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Eagles prove they are the class of the NFC East

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On paper at least, the NFC East race will enter the final three weeks as an entertaining three-team jumble (or three-ring circus) that figures to not sort itself out entirely until the highly anticipated Philadelphia at Dallas showdown in Week 17.

But don't believe it. Not for one second. The standings might say the Eagles (9-4), Cowboys (8-5) and Giants (7-6) are separated by a scant two games in the standings, top to bottom, but there's clearly only one legit contender and two obvious pretenders based on Week 14's results. And three more weeks of the season is likely to only re-enforce the depth of that perception, not lessen it.

Sorry to spoil anyone's party, but we hold these NFC East truths to be self-evident as we wind down play in the only NFL division that has qualified two or more teams for the playoffs in each of the past four years, and an NFL-high seven times overall this decade:

• The quick-strike Eagles obviously own the Giants. Philly has won four in a row against its long-time rivals in the span of one year and six days, and has torched New York for 40 and 45 points in two meetings this season.

Giants defenders will be dizzy until Tuesday from all the backpedaling they did in Sunday night's pinball-like 45-38 loss to Philadelphia, a game that will almost certainly represent the Eagles' final trip to Giants Stadium in its memorable 34-year history. It was the highest scoring game in this series, and these two have played 156 times since October 1933.

• And just as obviously, Dallas can't beat the Giants, having dropped both of its 2009 games against New York, not that that's even the truly relevant point at this time of year. As we all know by now, the Cowboys have trouble winning in December, and are in the throes of yet another painful late-season meltdown, the kind Dallas has specialized in since 2006.

The latest Cowboys failure came at home on Sunday, in a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 20-17 loss to San Diego (10-3), the Norv Turner-coached team that never loses in December. You might recall that Dallas owner Jerry Jones almost hired Turner as his coach in early 2007, but opted for the defensive-minded (and perpetually defensive) Wade Phillips instead. But I digress.

It doesn't take a degree in higher mathematics to add all of this up and figure out the bottom-line results that spring forth from these two hard-cold realities. Drumroll, please: The Eagles are the clear-cut class of the NFC East and will win the division this season for the second time in four years, and sixth time overall this decade -- twice as many as their nearest competitor (the Giants, with three).

Had the Giants somehow risen and beat the ridiculously explosive Eagles on a cool, damp evening in the Meadowlands, we would have all been treated to the spectacle of a delicious three-way, dead-heat tie in the NFC East. But you might as well add in your own variation of the "if pigs could fly line,'' because New York wasn't beating Philadelphia on this night. No matter how cool it would have been to watch three division rivals boil their entire seasons down to three games.

Not with DeSean Jackson recovered from his recent concussion and tormenting the Giants with his own brand of electrifying big-play-making. Not with Philadelphia scoring on offense, defense and special teams, and getting touchdowns from five players en route to a season-high 45 points. And not with this multi-faceted Eagles offense that features an embarrassment of riches, one that seemingly sets the bar higher for itself every week.

Jackson led the way for Philadelphia, but he wasn't the whole show. There was Donovan McNabb, and Michael Vick, and Brent Celek, and Leonard Weaver, and LeSean McCoy, and even Reggie Brown. They all took turns in the spotlight against the Giants, and once you added it all up, it was a dizzying display of firepower. One that very well could match the Saints, Viking or Cardinals point for point in the playoffs.

"We have a dangerously powerful offense,'' said Jackson, the second-year Eagles receiver who sat out last week's win at Atlanta, but returned with a vengeance against New York, scoring on a 72-yard second-quarter punt return and a 60-yard go-ahead bomb from McNabb in the third quarter. "Definitely there are times where I feel we're unstoppable, with all the play-makers we have. We just have a lot of depth right now. But we can't sit back and wait. We have a goal to go get, and that's what we want to do.''

Jackson is a play-making marvel to behold. He finished with 261 total yards, catching six passes for a game-high 178 yards and a touchdown, and adding 83 yards more on punt returns, including his spellbinding scoring dash down the left sideline in the first half. The touchdowns were the seventh and eighth of at least 50 yards this season for Jackson, which tied an NFL record set by Chicago's Devin Hester in 2007 and the Los Angeles Rams' Elroy "Crazy Legs'' Hirsch in 1951.

"He's pretty stinkin' exciting,'' said the usually laconic Eagles coach Andy Reid of Jackson. "I'm glad he's on our team. He's a heck of a player. When the game's on the line, he wants the ball. And I don't mind giving it to him.''

Jackson is by far the most explosive player in the NFC East this season -- and he knows it. Now the Giants definitely know it. They were left grasping for him all night, in both pass coverage and on punt returns.

"Personally, I feel like I'm kind of the big-play, go-to receiver at crucial moments,'' Jackson said. "I have a lot of explosion, a lot of speed, and quickness. Big plays, that's not all I do. But big plays are definitely a huge part of my game.''

The Eagles defense didn't completely sit this one out, even though Philly somehow managed to give up 512 yards of offense to the Giants and still be on the winning side. New York lost four fumbles, and Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown returned the first of them (by running back Brandon Jacobs) 60 yards for a touchdown and a first-quarter 14-0 Philly lead.

"It was a knock-down, drag-out battle,'' Reid said. "I know they had a couple yards, but the Eagles had a couple yards too.''

That they did, and some of the biggest of the night came from Michael Vick, the Eagles' Wildcat quarterback who is starting to find his role with this playoff-bound team. Vick completed a pretty 32-yard pass to Jackson on the Eagles first drive, setting up an 8-yard McNabb to Celek touchdown pass, and his 1-yard touchdown run just before the half put Philadelphia up 30-17 at the break.

"This is bigger than last week because I was able to go out there and make plays when we needed them,'' said Vick, who passed for a touchdown and ran for another last week in Atlanta, but only once the game was comfortably in hand. "I was put in the position to score early, and score a touchdown.''

Asked the last time he felt a pass come out of his hand the way his 32-yard strike to Jackson did, Vick smiled and said, "Man, 2006. It felt good. I feel the speed coming back. I feel the burst. And it just felt good to get the ball out of my hands quickly.''

With Vick actually contributing meaningful yards and points, it's a pretty scary picture the Eagles offense paints for an opposing defense right now. Jackson's unstoppable, McNabb's in a groove, and even the loss on Sunday of rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin (who tore his plantar fascia and will miss a week or two) didn't seem to throw a wrench in the Eagles' touchdown machine.

Though the Eagles would never admit it aloud, Sunday night effectively locked down the NFC East title for them. They still have home games against San Francisco and Denver in the next two weeks, but come that regular-season finale at Dallas, the game might only have real meaning to the desperate Cowboys. With both New York and Dallas no longer a real threat, Philly can now start setting its sights on measuring up to the rest of the NFC.

"It was a huge game,'' said Jackson, of the most pivotal outcome in this year's NFC East race. "It doesn't get any better than this. The world is watching. NBC (Sunday Night Football). Everybody is tuned into this. We knew what rode on this game. I saw Dallas had lost and I knew we had a chance to take over the division.''

In theory at least, the division race isn't over and the Giants and Cowboys will talk about conceding nothing in the weeks to come. But don't believe it. In reality, it's a mismatch, and the potential for a three-team NFC East-palooza to end the season no longer exists. The Eagles hold a commanding one-game lead over nose-diving Dallas, and have essentially buried the Giants, with what amounts to a three-game lead over New York with three games to play.

In one swift offensive explosion here Sunday night, Philadelphia separated itself, and sorted out the contender from the pretenders in its division. It might look close, but the standings lie. The Cowboys and Giants are only wild-card hopefuls now, and no one's catching these Eagles in this year's NFC East.

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