By Don Banks
November 09, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- When we last saw the Dallas Cowboys leaving this very same Lincoln Financial Field late last December, they were a battered and humbled group, having put the final, galling touch on one of the worst chemistry experiments in the history of the NFL. It was one last hard knock for the once-celebrated boys of "Hard Knocks,'' and the failure was epic-sized.

But quite a bit has changed for these Cowboys since that 44-6 season-ending, playoff-dream-killing humiliation at the hands of the Eagles, and the Dallas team that showed up here Sunday night seemed bent on proving it to both Philadelphia and the football-watching world. These Cowboys were everything last year's squad was not: Patient and resilient when they had to be. Opportunistic when the game allowed. And both self-less and disciplined enough to out-execute an Eagles team that is far better known for those championship qualities.

Don't go crowning these Cowboys the 2009 NFC East champion just yet, because there's still a half-season to play, and we all know December can be cruel to Jerry Jones' team. But the Cowboys' gritty 20-16 defeat of the Eagles was the best example so far that a new day might indeed be dawning in Dallas. I don't really remember the last time I was impressed with the backbone, chemistry and composure of a Cowboys team, but suffice to say it has been a decade or so.

"This was huge for our team," Dallas tight end Jason Witten said. "I'm so proud of our composure. At 2-2, and taking Kansas City into overtime (in Week 5), a lot of people were wondering what's going on with this team? We just kind of stayed together and stayed true together, and worked hard and got better. To fight back and at the halfway mark be in the [division] lead says a lot about our team."

The Cowboys are all alone in first place in the NFC East as midseason arrives. At 6-2, with a four-game winning streak since that panic-button Week 4 loss at Denver, Dallas is in the driver's seat of the division, a full game ahead of the vanquished Eagles (5-3) and 1½ games better off than the furiously fading Giants (5-4). The Cowboys improved to 3-1 on the road with the win, matching their 3-1 home record at their new $1.15 billion stadium.

While the Cowboys merely evened their record within the NFC East at 1-1, they appear to have plenty of ceiling room left. Their next three opponents are a combined 8-16: at Green Bay (4-4), home against Washington (2-6) and Oakland (2-6). If Dallas takes care of business against those three strugglers, it might just enter December for once with enough momentum at 9-2 to withstand even their annual late-season swoon.

"They all count, and they're all big, but this was a huge win for us because it was against a division opponent on the road, and a team that's going to be in the playoff picture," Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking said. "You don't want to make it bigger than what it was, because we've got to play [the Eagles] again at home, and we've got four more division games left.

"But besides New Orleans and Indy, I don't know how many other teams have won four games in a row this season. The more you pile up these wins, with as talented a team as we have, and the way we're playing, that's a dangerous recipe for us. We've just got to lock and reload every week, and approach it the same as we did this week, and we're going to be just fine."

If you're a Cowboys fan, there are so many reasons to walk away from game feeling completely different about your team than you did the last time it faced Philadelphia.

-- The way Dallas got the one game-changing play it needed at the most opportune time: Miles Austin's 49-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown catch with 8:04 remaining, his only reception of the game, but the most impactful.

-- The way the Cowboys defense responded to not one, but two second-half short-yardage situations that blunted Eagles drives. Philly failed on a third-and-2 from its 41 midway through the third quarter, and again on 4th-and-1 from the Dallas 45 with 11:01 left in the game. Both times, Eagles coach Andy Reid challenged the spot via instant replay, and both times he lost, losing critical timeouts in the process.

-- And lastly, the way the Cowboys offense slammed the door on Philadelphia on their final possession, to protect their four-point lead and kill off the final 3:33 of the clock. Dallas went to running back Marion Barber for the first three plays of the drive, picking up 23 yards, and then bravely threw the ball to Witten on third-an-3 with 2:02 remaining, picking up five yards and icing the game.

There weren't many pretty moments in this particular Cowboys-Eagles affair. Points were at a premium, and the penalties were plentiful. But from a Dallas perspective, it was a masterpiece when it comes to how the interlocking pieces of a team are supposed to work.

"Defensively we made the stops we had to make, and then there was a moment after those stops that pretty much sums it up right here,'' said Brooking, in his first season as a Cowboy after spending his entire career in Atlanta. "We make the stop and go to the sideline, and Marion [Barber] comes walking by our bench, saying, 'I got this. Don't worry. I'm going to take care of this for y'all.' And he goes out there and has [some] great runs.

"That's our football team. I just love our atmosphere on the sideline, the way we talk to each other, the intensity in guys' eyes. That desire. That's what make this game so much fun to play, and we're having a lot of fun right now. We've just got to keep it going."

Dallas was far from dominating against the Eagles, but we've seen plenty of dominating Cowboys teams fall flat when it matters most in recent years. Dallas punted five times, committed 11 penalties for 70 yards, and somehow never got its quality running game untracked (76 yards on 23 attempts) until the game's final drive. But the Cowboys never made the mistake that cost them the game, took care of the football again (just one Tony Romo interception, his first in this four-game win streak), and played a smarter, more cool-headed game than the normally well-coached Eagles.

"That was our motto coming in," said Romo, who finished 21 of 34 for 307 yards, with four sacks, the one pick and one touchdown pass. "We're going to protect the ball. We may miss some stuff -- and we did tonight, a couple of times -- but we're also going to get them a few times. At the end of the day, you just want to have more good ones than bad.''

Dallas last season was a team ruled by distractions, but even last week's rather minor Roy Williams headlines didn't seem to hurt. Williams said last week that he and Romo didn't have much of a connection yet, but on Sunday the pair hooked up five times for 75 yards, moving the chains at key moments.

"I really have liked the way Roy has put his head down and really played hard for us," Jones said. "Roy had a couple games that I think he got frustrated, but I see the way he played tonight and know that we made the right decision bringing him in here."

Last time the Cowboys played here, there were no postgame self-congratulatory statements from Jones. Only doubts, questions and the realization that something was terribly wrong in Dallas. But last December's debacle seemed like a long-ago memory on this night. These Cowboys suddenly have a future, and talk of refusing to be trapped by their underachieving past.

"You can't look back in my opinion," said Romo, of last year's embarrassing season finale against Philadelphia. "It's not something we sat there and said, 'Hey, we've got to make amends for something.' That was last year. They got us. That was their year. We're trying to make this year our year, and so far the process has been the right way with the guys, with the commitment level and intensity."

So far, so good in Dallas. This season, it's the first-place Cowboys who are handing out most of the hard knocks.

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