IRVING, Texas - They came here without saying it, but they had to be searching for a sign, for an affirmation. Because the Eagles this season have left so much undone.

You wondered if any of that flashed through Brian Dawkins' mind as Terrell Owens slipped on his route, as Tony Romo's pass sailed his way, as the Dallas Cowboys' last realistic gasp nestled in Dawkins' arms.

Much later, Dawkins said the only thing going through his mind was catching it and getting his feet in bounds. That was physical, his last act in a hellaciously hard game, the interception with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The philosophical was for later.

And Dawkins said, "This is who we really are."

We do not know, though. We have not been able to tell. The Eagles have a 6-8 record after beating the Cowboys yesterday at Texas Stadium, 10-6. They have given two fabulous efforts now against the NFL's two best teams - a close loss on the road at undefeated New England, and now this win on the road against a team that was 12-1 as the day began.

It is maddening for people who watch the team. It certainly must complicate the efforts of the people who run the team, whose job it is to evaluate what the Eagles have going forward.

They have been so good, so tough, so competitive against the very best in the NFL and so consistently error-prone the rest of the time. They have shown the ability to rise to the top of the league's competitive level - quarterback Donovan McNabb, for one, was physically courageous and really cool under a constant Cowboys onslaught - and they have more often shown a propensity to stumble.

What? What are they?

About this game, Dawkins was insistent.

"That's really who we are," he said. "The other team that kept showing up, that does things in the fourth quarter or the third quarter - mistakes, whatever, offense, defense, special teams - that's the team that kept showing up too much, just making mistakes at the wrong time and giving the other team an opportunity to beat us."

It is, with all due respect, a common NFL lament. This is not college football. The difference in most games is two or three or four plays. The good teams make them. The 6-8 teams don't. The difference

between good and bad - except in the egregious cases, like the Miami Dolphins - is really that sliver. And the bad teams consistently fail to make those two or three or four plays. In fact, it is how the NFL defines bad.

The Eagles this season have left so much on the table, made so many of these mistakes. They do not have the dominant talent they had 5 years ago. They have good talent, and mistakes in the NFL eat good talent alive, and that's that.

They all know that. As you walked around the visitor's locker room at Texas Stadium, you could hear a guy like middle

linebacker Omar Gaither asked to think back on the close losses and say, "It's frustrating at times. But we're going to celebrate this win tonight and get ready for next week. It is what it is. There's nothing you can really do about it."

Which is the truth of it and the shame of it. Anybody who has spent any time in the league knows it. As tackle William

Thomas said, "You just keep fighting. You can't look back: 'If we would have done this, if we would have done that.' You just have to deal with what you have today.

"And keep pushing," he said.

But you wonder, in the immortal words of Ricky Watters, for who and for what? The games are all important, and what you put on film is personally important, and the playoffs remain at least a theoretical possibility, and we all get that. But is this kind of game important, really important? Is a significant message being sent on a day like this - to the fans, or even to the

people making decisions at One NovaCare Way?

"I really think the people in charge believe we have a good team," cornerback Sheldon Brown said.

"I think, for us, it doesn't really matter about us trying to prove it to somebody else. We just have to prove it to ourselves when we watch that tape.

"People laugh when we say

we're this close," he said, holding his index finger and thumb about 2 inches apart. "They say, 'Yeah, right - we lost again.' But as players, we watch film and under- stand what we're trying to do . . . and we understand that we're not as bad as you think we are."

But who is to know? Every NFL team has injuries and every NFL team plays a lot of close games and only some are 6-8. These Eagles were clobbered by the Cowboys at home, and now they have traveled so smartly against the same team. Again: Who is to know?

"When we go out and don't make mistakes like we did the first time we played Dallas," Dawkins said, trying to explain it. "We're a lot healthier than we were the first time against Dallas - a lot of guys were beat up, myself and Lito [Sheppard, the cornerback who so skillfully shadowed T.O. all day]. So this game was an absolutely different mind-set."

He stopped himself in mid-thought, then restarted.

"The mind-set was the same," Dawkins said. "But we felt like ourselves today."

If we could only be as sure as he is. *

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