Sunday, November 08, 2009

Cowboys haven't forgotten humiliation


PHILADELPHIA -- When he jogged onto the Lincoln Financial Field turf for warm-ups on the afternoon of Dec. 28, Eagles cornerback Joselio Hanson sensed despair in his surroundings.

The Eagles needed the most improbable chain of upsets around the NFL in the final week of regular-season action to make the playoffs. Heck, they needed an Oakland victory, which alone turned the normally frenetic Linc into the world's largest mortuary.

"It was kind of dead in warm-ups," he recalled.

Then, one by one, fiction turned to fact. Houston had overcome a 10-point deficit to beat Chicago. Oakland, which had won four games all year, upset Tampa Bay. All that stood between the Eagles and the postseason was the Cowboys, and vice versa.

"It was kind of like it was meant for us to get in," cornerback Sheldon Brown recalled.

That afternoon, destiny manifested in the largest victory margin ever over their hated rivals -- a 44-6 triumph over Dallas powered by a 24-point second quarter.

"I know the crowd was electric knowing that we had an opportunity," Eagles coach Andy Reid recalled last week, "and I'm sure it gave the players even a little bit more hope or energy."

But the same forces that conspired to propel the Eagles into the playoffs are the ones they'll wrestle with tonight at home on prime time television. Every action spawns a reaction, and the fallout from the 38-point blowout is gone but not forgotten.

"I think we're gong to watch it on tape, correct the things we didn't do well and come up with a way to attack these guys and go out there and be a better football team than we played that day," said Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who was picked off once, sacked four times, lost two fumbles that led to touchdowns and passed for his lowest yardage (183) of the season.

"I think there is motivation in the sense that this is an important game and it's on the road against a good opponent, but I think we're going to be playing better than we were at that time."

Last year's do-or-die finale charted divergent paths for both teams, ones that had lasting effects well in the offseason.

Romo collapsed in the postgame shower from a rib injury and later blamed the coaches' vanilla game plan for the offense's inability to counter the Eagles' array of exotic blitzes. On the flight home, two teammates got into a fight.

Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart eventually got the ax and divisive receiver Terrell Owens was jettisoned for the third time in five years.

The outcome also added at least one -- and probably two -- more years to Donovan McNabb's tenure in Philadelphia.

After being benched for the first time in his career one month earlier, McNabb churned out playoff road wins over Minnesota and top-seeded New York, returning the Eagles to the conference championship for the fifth time in his 10 years.

It's not unrealistic to think Kevin Kolb would be the Eagles' starter tonight had McNabb ended up on the wrong side of that 44-6 rout.

Who knows what destiny awaited Dallas if the Cowboys had instead embarrassed the Eagles that afternoon.

"We know what happened last year," Cowboys linebacker Bradie James told the Dallas Morning News.

"This is a different team, a different season, but we haven't forgotten. The only way we can right that wrong is to go out there and win, whether it's ugly, sexy, it doesn't really matter. We've got to go out there and find a way to win."

This time, the stakes are different. It's too early in the season to pretend tonight's showdown carries any more significance than an average Eagles-Cowboys clash based on the rivalry's history alone.

After losing 32 of 42 games to Dallas from 1965 to 1985, the Eagles have had the upper hand. They're 14-6 against the Cowboys since Reid became head coach in 1999 and 4-2 in their last six.

Tonight, they've got a chance to win their first three division games for the first time since 2004 -- when they swept all six games against the NFC East and went to the Super Bowl.

But they'll have to overcome two obstacles: white-hot Dallas' suddenly explosive offense that's averaged close to 400 total yards per game during the team's three-game win streak and the oversized chip on the shoulders of Cowboys players who haven't moved beyond 44-6.

"Maybe they're not saying it," Hanson said, "but I know it's in the back of their minds. It was only 10 months ago, 11 months ago. It's still there."

First place is on the line for Dallas, too.

"I don't get caught up in all of that stuff," Reid assured. "I get caught up in this being a good football team coming here and we have to make sure we practice the right way and we prepare the right way when we're not on the practice field.

"We're spending enough time as coaches and players getting ourselves ready for a good football team. That's where my energy goes. You take care of the process here and everything else takes itself, records and standings and all of that."

Phillips, whose job security is always the headline in the Dallas-Forth Worth region, said the sour taste from the lopsided defeat affects his players differently.

"Depends on what motivates people," he said last week in a conference call with Philadelphia media.

"I think for some guys it's still lingering, and it motivates them more. Some of the guys weren't even on the team last year. It just depends on the player, I think."