Good morning, Eagles fans. This is a Monday edition of Early Birds following the Eagles' bye week. The Eagles return to work today to begin a seven-week stretch to close the regular season. Sunday gave a glimpse of the other teams in contention for playoff spots.

  • It was a good day for the Eagles because all their NFC East rivals lost. Most notable was the Dallas Cowboys' 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons to drop to 5-4. The Cowboys, who host the Eagles Sunday, are the Birds' biggest threat in the division. The Eagles now have a three-game advantage. The Cowboys played their first of six games without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott, and the running game suffered. Even worse was the offensive line without left tackle Tyron Smith. (He's expected back for the Eagles game.) Washington lost to Minnesota to fall to 4-5, and it's hard to see them as a factor in the division race. The Giants dropped to 1-8 in a forgettable season, and that Dec. 17 game up the Jersey Turnpike should look even more appealing to Eagles fans.

  • It was a bad day for the Eagles elsewhere in the NFC, because the three two-loss teams all won. The New Orleans Saints dominated Buffalo in a 47-10 win, and they've now won seven in a row and look like legitimate contenders. With Drew Brees at quarterback, a versatile running game, and a suddenly menacing defense, they'd be tough to play in January. The Los Angeles Rams' 33-7 win over the Houston Texans made them 7-2 this season with an offense that's as hot as any in the NFL. The Eagles will see Jared Goff and the Rams up close on Dec. 10; that's one of the marquee games remaining on the schedule this year. The Minnesota Vikings are also 7-2 after the win over Washington, and their heralded defense is complemented by a productive offense with Case Keenum at quarterback, although they could soon turn to Teddy Bridgewater. All three teams are on the Eagles' tail for first-round byes.

  • After the four best teams in the NFC (Eagles included), there are proven teams lurking that show why January could be a challenging month. The Seattle Seahawks are a tough-minded team that's 6-3 after a Thursday win over Arizona. Even though cornerback Richard Sherman is out for the season, that's a team that knows how to win big games. (Seattle is 17-5 in December since 2012.) Carolina is 6-3 going into tonight's game against Miami. The Eagles beat the Panthers earlier this season, but there's still a lot of talent on that roster. Atlanta's win over Dallas puts the Falcons at 5-4, and they're the defending NFC champions. The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers are also 5-4 after wins on Sunday. With the Packers, the question is whether they can sneak into the postseason to get Aaron Rodgers back. The Seahawks, Panthers, Falcons, and Packers have all shown they can win in the postseason — that experience could matter in high-pressure situations.

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— Zach Berman

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From the mailbag

It looks like cornerback Ronald Darby will return this week. He's been out since Week 1 with a dislocated ankle, although he's been practicing on a limited basis for a few weeks. I didn't get to see much of Darby before the injury because he played only two preseason games and part of that opener. But I think he'll step back into a starting cornerback spot and take on a significant workload. My guess is you'll see Darby and Jalen Mills on the outside with Patrick Robinson in the slot. Darby brings a lot of speed to the Eagles' secondary, and they could use that going forward — especially vs. the Rams. So he'll quickly adjust back into the rotation, but his level of play wasn't especially apparent before the injury.