IRVING, Texas - A funny thing happened amid all that much-discussed torch-passing between Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo, between the team that won the NFC East five times in the previous six seasons and the team that easily dominated the division this year.
Instead of handing off the torch neatly for the Fox cameras, the Eagles locked both hands around it and drove it like a bayonet into the Dallas Cowboys' praise-softened gut. McNabb outplayed Romo yesterday, and the fading Eagles jumped up off their deathbed to bloody and confound the NFC's newly anointed elite, the Birds winning, 10-6, in front of a profoundly miffed Texas Stadium crowd.
Dallas (12-2) lost for the first time in the NFC and for the first time, period, since Oct. 14, against the unbeaten Patriots; the Cowboys clinched a first-round playoff bye anyway, but their seeming inevitability as the NFC Super Bowl representative took a hit. The Eagles (6-8) stayed alive in the race for the second NFC wild-card playoff berth and won for the first time since Nov. 18. After losing their previous three games by a total of 10 points, they found a way to finish out a close game.
"I'd hate to play Philadelphia in the playoffs," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. "They're a good team."
McNabb (23-for-41, 208 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, 78.1 passer rating) has put together much better games statistically, but he has never engineered a bigger upset. The defense's amazing performance against Romo, who was a career-worst 13-for-36 for 214 yards, no touchdowns (for the first time this season), three interceptions and a 22.2 passer rating, surely was a huge factor in the outcome, but you have to give No. 5 big props as well.
On a day that began with Fox sideline reporter Pam Oliver reporting that McNabb told her he sees the organization distancing itself from him, and that it is paying too much attention to negative fan reaction, McNabb showed why jettisoning him might not be such a great idea. He took some brutal hits, especially after right guard Shawn Andrews left with a knee injury, but he never got rattled.
"I was just giving thanks to the man upstairs," by gesturing following the game's only touchdown, McNabb said. Some observers tried to tie the gesture to ex-teammate Terrell Owens, and others thought he was somehow mocking the Cowboys overall. "I've been through a lot this year; if it's injury, or whatever it may be, I was just giving thanks.
"These [last] three games are our Super Bowl. I don't like to use the word 'playoffs,' but you have to have that attitude, like it is the Super Bowl, going into each game."
Oliver made it sound as if McNabb believes he is gone after the season, something many people have speculated but McNabb has never acknowledged. For the record, he didn't acknowledge it after yesterday's game, either, in the wake of Oliver's assertion that, "Donovan told me point-blank: My knee is not an issue. The next place I go, I will win, and also that he will keep a smile on his face for as long he's in an Eagles uniform."
"If I'm here, or wherever I may be, I'm going to give all that I have," McNabb said afterward, seeming to more or less confirm the substance if not the tone of Oliver's report - until he was asked if he was confirming it. Then McNabb said: "I am denying it. She didn't get it right." McNabb said he did not say he thought he was leaving.
McNabb noted that team president Joe Banner "came out to say I'd be here next year. That's what he said, and I expect to be here. I said I would be here, and that's the way I look at it. I don't feel [the organization is distancing itself]."
Eagles coach Andy Reid certainly wasn't in a distancing mood after watching McNabb thread a crucial, third-and-9 pass for a 29-yard gain and a clock-eating first down to Brent Celek, the Birds' only remaining healthy tight end, with 2 minutes, 19 seconds left. On the next play, Brian Westbrook turned down a gift touchdown, flopping at the 1 so the Eagles could run out the clock without giving the ball back.
"I don't believe any of that," Reid said of Oliver's report. "I mean, that guy, if he didn't show you today, then he'll never show you. He's been doing it for stinkin' 9 years. He just keeps playing and playing and playing. You're never going to make everybody happy. Ninety percent of the people love this guy to death. The 10 percent that don't, they're the ones everybody listens to."
Of course, long after the momentary thrill of disrupting the Cowboys' march into the record book fades, the key question around the Eagles will be what happens with McNabb. But that wasn't how Reid was looking at it yesterday. Asked to affirm that McNabb will be his quarterback next season, Reid said: "Yeah. We've got to finish this season first. You've got to be kidding me. He just played a great game, and you're asking me that?"
Westbrook, who said he "got a stern talking-to" from right tackle Jon Runyan about what to do if the Cowboys tried to concede the touchdown, said he thought McNabb "played a fantastic game today. He ran the ball well. He threw the ball in the clutch very well; that's what we know Donovan as, a clutch performer, a guy who can carry this football team. Today, our running game wasn't where it needed to be, the whole game, and Donovan really carried us."
A couple of fourth-quarter gallops boosted Westbrook to 81 yards on 18 carries, but for much of the day, he was more effective as a receiver (nine catches for 63 yards).
Reid said the Eagles "played their hearts out," as they did the last time they faced an elite team, that 31-28 loss at New England on Nov. 25. How does a team look this good against squads that regularly trample opponents, but manage to lose eight of its first 13 games? And what's with winning four of the last five on the road, while losing five of seven at home this season?
"When you're not playing error-free football, the way we haven't, the ball bounces for the other team," Westbrook said of a squad that has four three-point losses.
The Eagles controlled the ball nearly three-fourths of the first quarter but scored no points. David Akers missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt. But Romo, who started off 9-for-9 in the Cowboys' 38-17 victory at Lincoln Financial Field back on Nov. 4, completed no first-quarter passes, and he finished the first half 5-for-17 for 91 yards and a 9.8 passer rating - all of the completions going to tight ends.
The Birds finally put together the game's lone touchdown drive at the end of the first half, after Lito Sheppard jumped a route on Owens and nabbed his eighth pick in his last eight games against Dallas, his fifth in the last five meetings, giving the Birds the ball at Dallas' 49.
The Eagles faced second-and-13 at the Cowboys' 40, when McNabb dropped back to pass and saw a wide-open field in front of him. Turning back the calendar, he zipped up the middle, freezing safety Pat Watkins and rambling for 28 yards, to the Dallas 12. Four plays later, McNabb hit Reggie Brown for a 1-yard TD and a 7-3 lead.
The Cowboys got three back in the third quarter, but Romo still couldn't find his wideouts, and one of them, wearing No. 81, dropped a pass over the middle that was right in his hands. Owens finally caught a pass early in the fourth quarter, against middle linebacker Omar Gaither, and then another, but both catches came underneath, for a total of 37 yards - nothing outside, with Sheppard shadowing and Romo, wincing from a right thumb injury suffered during the game, misfiring.
"I don't like to brag or say 'shut down,' " Sheppard said after his best performance in a season defined by the knee injury he suffered in the season opener. "We just execute our defense."
In fact, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson usually keeps Sheppard on the left and Sheldon Brown on the right, regardless of where the wideouts go. This time, he kept Sheppard with Owens, who caught 10 passes for 174 yards in the first meeting. Owens called Sheppard this past week to tell the corner that T.O. was going to bring his "A" game. But wideouts depend a lot on quarterbacks, and with Romo getting sacked a season-high four times, Owens' game was several notches down the alphabet from "A."
The Eagles added to their lead with a 21-yarder from Akers, who officially became the franchise scoring leader, with 884 points to Bobby Walston's 881.
After a pressured Sav Rocca punt, the Cowboys had a first down on the Eagles' 45, but they went backward. Romo missed Owens twice, Marc Colombo false-started, and Trent Cole sacked and stripped Romo, tight end Jason Witten recovering the fumble.
You kept waiting for Romo lightning to strike the way it had a week earlier, in stealing a victory at the end against Detroit, but the quarterback the Dallas media already has moved ahead of Troy Aikman and into Roger Staubach territory, in just Romo's second season as a starter, could not add to his impressive season total of 35 touchdown passes.
The Cowboys' last gasp came on second-and-18 from their 37. Owens stumbled and fell and there was no one under the ball at the right sideline but Brian Dawkins, whose interception was his first of the season, with 2:50 left.
"The d-line did a good job of getting after him. We hit him a few times," Gaither said, of Romo. "Any time you hit a quarterback, they don't like it. I think that frustrated them. We did a good job of getting after them." *