Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cowboys, Eagles meet with home playoff at stake


ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) - December 31, 2009 -- Jerry Jones flew home from last year's finale in Philadelphia vowing to change the Dallas Cowboys.

Although he considered that club as talented as any of his Super Bowl championship teams, they sure didn't play like it. Torn apart by petty jealousies and personal glory, they not only blew a chance to cruise into the playoffs, they wound up missing out entirely after getting stomped 44-6 by the Eagles.

So Jones dumped Terrell Owens, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Tank Johnson and Greg Ellis. He fired the defensive coordinator and the special teams coach. He made head coach Wade Phillips take over the defense and plugged holes on the roster with relatively unheralded, team-oriented guys.

Now look at them.

The Cowboys close the season Sunday in another high-stakes finale against the Eagles. Although both teams have clinched a playoff berth, the winner will be crowned champions of the NFC East and earn the reward of a home playoff game.

If Philadelphia wins, it will earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. Dallas could get that, too, but it would require losses by Minnesota and Arizona. If the Cowboys win, these teams could meet again next week.

Two weeks ago, Dallas was coming off consecutive losses and could have easily folded again, especially going to New Orleans to play the undefeated Saints. But instead of guys pointing fingers, they came together and knocked off the Saints, then went to Washington and shut out the Redskins. The surge has set themselves up for this potentially big finish and probably saved Phillips' job.

"I feel like we're more of a team this year," cornerback Mike Jenkins said. "Last year, we had an incident where our team fell apart a little bit. As you can tell right now, all of us are staying together and we're playing as a team."

So are the Eagles.

Philadelphia was 5-4 in mid-November and coming off consecutive defeats, starting with a home loss to Dallas that put the Cowboys in first place. The Eagles haven't lost since, winning six straight to put themselves in position to become the betting-line favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

"The attitude is different, the approach is different, the enthusiasm is a lot different and the confidence is different," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "We have to continue that."

McNabb's offense is averaging 31.2 points during the winning streak, pushing Philadelphia to the most points in franchise history with a game left.

However, the Eagles scored only 16 points the last time they played the Cowboys, their second-lowest total of the season. And Dallas is on a three-game roll of limiting teams to their lowest point totals of the season; that includes San Diego and New Orleans, the only clubs that average more points per game than Philadelphia.

The Cowboys slowed the Eagles in November by keeping DeSean Jackson without any of his trademark big plays. It remains to be seen whether they can do it again.

"We'll do a little better job there," Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said.

Another challenge for the Eagles is replacing center Jamaal Jackson, who tore a knee ligament this past Sunday. Nick Cole is taking his place.

Philadelphia's defense will be trying to slow a Dallas offense closing in on its most prolific season. Tony Romo is 40 yards from breaking the club's single-season passing record and the offense is 53 yards from its best total.

Should the Cowboys win again, they would have their first winning record after Thanksgiving since 1996, which also happens to be the last time they won a playoff game. Of course, carrying a three-game winning streak into the playoffs and having a home playoff game would help their chances of ending that drought, too.

Considering they could lure close to 100,000 for that extra home game, a victory Sunday could be worth untold millions for owner Jerry Jones, giving him even more reasons to pick up Phillips' option for next season.

"When I look at all of this," Jones said, "I wouldn't trade the alternative, which is to have felt better sooner. I wouldn't have traded that alternative to be where we are right now with the good things that I see this team becoming."