Joselio Hanson couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Brian Dawkins had just made a sideline tackle of Marion Barber and forced a fumble by the Cowboys running back at the Eagles' 4-yard line. Rather than careen out of bounds with Barber, the football laid on the ground, practically gift-wrapped.

Hanson picked it up and realized a longtime dream. He raced 96 yards for a touchdown that expanded the Eagles' lead to 41-3 in the third quarter. After he crossed the goal line, Hanson did a Deion Sanders quickstep. In effect, he was dancing on the Cowboys' grave.

"It felt great," Hanson said yesterday. "It was perfect. Nine out of 10 times, the ball goes out of bounds. I've never seen a fumble just lay there on the sideline, and I'm glad it happened. I just ran straight."

The 44-6 win over Dallas on Sunday put the Eagles in the NFL playoffs. The Eagles play the Vikings in Minneapolis on Sunday in a wild-card game, a deserving prize for a defense that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson feels better about than any he's had going into the playoffs.

"I can't remember feeling this good" going into postseason, Johnson said yesterday. "The biggest thing I see right now is consistency, not giving up a lot of big plays, pretty consistent with the pressure, and the coverage has been one of the best we've had for a while, really."

If it's defense above all else that wins playoff games, the Eagles and their followers have reason to be excited because the one Johnson runs has peaked at just the right time. In the last four games, the Eagles defense has given up only two touchdowns. One was meaningless. It was scored by the Giants in the final two minutes of the Eagles' 20-14 win in Game 13. The other came after a fumble by Donovan McNabb gave the Redskins possession on the Eagles' 18.

Against the Cowboys, the Eagles had five takeaways and the defense scored two TDs - the fumble return by Hanson and another by Chris Clemons that went for 73 yards.

"It seemed like everybody was playing it perfectly, as good as they could," Hanson said. "It all happened at the right time, the last game of the season when we really needed a win. It was perfect, really."

Overall, the defense ranks No. 1 in the NFC - No. 2 against the run, No. 1 against the pass.

During the course of this crazy season, as the Eagles offense played great one week and pathetically the next, the defense has evolved into one that appears capable of leading them on a playoff run.

It didn't start out that way. The best way to measure the improvement is through the Eagles' NFC East opponents. The Cowboys dropped 41 points on the Eagles in September. The Redskins and Giants simply lined up and bowled over the Eagles for more than 200 yards rushing in their first games against them.

In those three games, the Eagles surrendered 100 points and 1,169 yards. In the rematches, the Eagles chopped the numbers down to 30 points and 758 yards.

Some of the improvement can be attributed to changes in personnel. Hanson moved ahead of Lito Sheppard as the nickel cornerback. Akeem Jordan bumped Omar Gaither from the starting lineup at weakside linebacker. Some of the improvement can be attributed to the emergence of defensive linemen Darren Howard, who leads the team with 10 sacks, and Clemons, who signed as a free agent and needed time to get comfortable with Johnson's system.

"I had a lot of confidence in Jordan. I thought he had some good football instincts and cover ability," Johnson said. "And the more and more Chris Clemons came along, learning the defense and feeling more comfortable . . . He does a good job as our nickel rush end. He just got better.

"I think one of the guys who has really, really solidified the secondary a little bit has been Hanson in the nickel position. A really great job, very consistent, ever since we made that switch. I kind of knew what Hanson was going to do from last year. He's got good quickness to cover a slot receiver. I'm glad he got his chance and has taken advantage of it and done a great job."

Early in the season, the Eagles appeared vulnerable against power running teams and talented tight ends. But Johnson said the improvement of linebackers Chris Gocong and Stewart Bradley and the more aggressive tactics of his ends have helped contain the run, while Jordan and safety Quintin Mikell have improved their coverage of tight ends.

The focus will be on the Eagles' run defense against the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher with 1,760 yards. In a 23-16 win over Minnesota last season, the Eagles limited Peterson to 70 yards on 20 carries.

"He's as good a back as you'll see," Johnson said. "He's a special guy. You think you've got the perfect defense and all of a sudden one guy maybe slips, falls down, and he's got that gap and all of a sudden he's got that explosion. I know our objective will be to keep those long runs down because he's going to get some yards. You just hope he doesn't get those long runs. The challenge for us will be to keep those runs under 10 yards."