Somehow, the essence of the Eagles appeared to slip from the peak.

Somehow, amid questioning Andy Reid's worthiness and Donovan McNabb's ability and Brian Dawkins' shelf life, the foundation of the club's respectability – the defense - became an afterthought.

Yesterday, it roared back to the summit.

In the 44-6 win over the Cowboys that clinched the final NFC wild-card slot, the defense was responsible not only for the "6" portion, but also for more than half of the "44."

The defense forced four turnovers that led to 24 Eagles points, two on long touchdown runbacks. It sacked Tony Romo three times and he coughed it up twice.

It was the ninth time it held a team to 14 points or fewer and the fourth week in a row. The Steelers, Ravens and Titans, defensive standouts all, have done it a combined 11 times this season.

"You know I don't care about that. I'm not a big stat guy," lied defensive coordinator Jim Johnson; because, in his next breath, "Aren't we right behind them?"

Pretty much everywhere: Points allowed, yardage, sacks, etc.

That last one matters most, sometimes. Johnson wants as many sacks as possible, because, in his eyes, sacks mean pressure that leads to turnovers . . . that win games.

"We talked about that: If you want to play in championship games, go to the Super Bowl, you've got to get some big turnovers in big games," Johnson said.

Dawkins the Aged forced the first two - first on a delayed blitz of Romo, the second catching Marion Barber from behind and punching out the well-tucked ball.

Clemons forced the third, which the Birds turned into a field goal.

"They played loose. They weren't tight, like last week . . . I've never had a day like this," said Johnson, a pro football coach since 1984.

Certainly, he hadn't had a defensive performance like this, against a team of this caliber in this atmosphere.

This had been brewing.

A week before, the interceptions clanged off the Eagles' hands. The fumbles scooted back to the Redskins, a lifeless team playing for nothing.

Yesterday, a week later, the interception nestled into Sheldon Brown's arms. The fumbles – three of them, all in the third quarter – bounced into the waiting hands of defenders, fortunately fleet.

Defensive end Chris Clemons returned the first one 73 yards for a touchdown. Joselio Hanson returned a second about 3 minutes later 96 yards for another score. Clemons forced a third two plays later.

"One of those games," Cole said yesterday . . . then added: "A good game. A great game."

One where everything – every bounce of a fumble, every blown read by a quarterback or receiver, went their way – every last thing went their way.

On their way back to the top.

Not that they were ever really that far from it. *