All right, now you are allowed to feel bad about the whole what-might-have-been aspect of the Eagles' season. Now you can believe some of the talk about how close they have been - "just a hair off" - and about the narrowness of the line between winning and losing in the NFL.

Now they have finally beaten a good team, even if the 10-6 win over the Cowboys on Sunday was really more about Dallas collapsing than the Eagles rising up. Either way, if they were castigated for the ugly losses, they must be congratulated for the imperfect wins as well.

Previously, if they were telling the truth, the game the Eagles were proudest of this season was a defeat - the three-point loss to the Patriots in Foxborough. The wins, all five of them, either came against teams that were truly awful (Jets, Dolphins) or against teams whose records are inflated by the flat, uninspiring landscape of the NFC (Lions, Vikings, Redskins).

In that game against New England, however, when expected to lose by more than three touchdowns, they finally stood up for themselves and gave a glimpse of the might-have-been. Perhaps they were a little too happy about it all, given the fact it was, uh, a loss, but they could be forgiven that night.

Now they have another game to cherish, and this time they won. It could be that the Cowboys took them lightly coming in, but that doesn't explain the second half, when the Eagles avoided another late fold of the kind that has defined their season.

Proving their skill to someone else "doesn't really matter," cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "We just needed to prove it to ourselves. We understand we're not as bad as you think we are."

And, in the same way, they aren't as bad as they themselves might have feared. They did need to convince themselves that at least some of the earlier losses were a happenstance built on bad luck, bad timing and mistakes rather than a fundamental lack of talent.

"You can't go back," cornerback Joselio Hanson said, "but some of those games, man, I mean, losing five games by three points, and the way we did, it's hard to believe."

Actually, it was four losses by three points and one by four points, but the sentiment is accurate. Good teams make the plays they missed, of course, and finish off games. And every team suffers through injuries, so that excuse doesn't hold, either. But, true enough, it has been hard to believe.

Consider that the Eagles were: tied with Green Bay in the fourth quarter; down by just four points at halftime of the first Washington game; down by seven at halftime of the first Giants game; leading Chicago by four with 1 minute, 52 seconds left and the Bears on their own 3-yard line; leading New England in the fourth quarter; trailing Seattle by no more than four points in the second half and set up for the win until A.J. Feeley's fourth interception; and leading the Giants midway through the third quarter of their second meeting. All losses. Seven of them.

That's the what-might-have-been, although theoretically transferring the L's to the W side of the standings isn't how it works. This isn't a 13-1 team, or even close to it. Against the Cowboys, it took the worst day of Tony Romo's short career and a fair number of breaks for the Eagles to gasp out the win. Donovan McNabb couldn't sustain many drives but did scramble better than he had in two years, a good thing since the Cowboys were pressuring him hard all afternoon.

"Their guy didn't have much better," Dallas coach Wade Phillips said, asked about Romo's day. "He got sacked four times. He just didn't throw any interceptions, which we knew he wouldn't. We just had more turnovers than he did."

It is the sort of postgame litany that Andy Reid has been forced to dispense all season, minus the backhanded slap at the other team, naturally. Instead, Reid was able to commend McNabb for the first win he had started and finished since Nov. 11, and to look forward to another week in which finishing the season strong was still a goal he could sell with a straight face.

That is where you have to keep the might-have-been in perspective. Don't confuse it with the what-will-be. Sunday didn't change that. The Eagles have been so inconsistent, it would seem major changes will be needed before they can compete seriously for a championship again.

Coming close in the games has been frustrating, as is just coming close to the postseason. In the end, though, it doesn't matter that they beat the Cowboys, because they also lost to the Bears. It certainly doesn't matter that they hung around with the Patriots, because they couldn't get past the Giants.

And when you are finally tired of the what-might-have-been, the plain truth about this season is that the Eagles really beat only one team all year - and that was themselves.

Contact columnist Bob Ford
at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.