It used to be a good thing, the way Andy Reid's Eagles would play their best football in the season's final quarter. Now it's merely puzzling.

Back when they dominated the NFC East, the Eagles might have some issues early or in midseason, but they would play better and better as the playoffs drew nearer and nearer. That was good, a sign of a championship-caliber team.

Lately, the Eagles seem good at times and just plain horrid at times. They teeter on the verge of elimination and then, as if through sheer muscle memory, get on a run over the final month of the season. That's just puzzling, the sign of a schizophrenic team.

Two years ago, the Eagles won their last five games, won the division title and a playoff game, and then got knocked out in the second round.

Last year, the late run wasn't enough. They won their final three games, taking more satisfaction from that surge than it warranted.

This year? Well, that's where it gets interesting. The Eagles have won two in a row with three more to play. The table is laid out eerily the way it was when they ran it in '06. And the prospect of running that table again looks a lot better than it did 48 hours ago.

The Eagles deserve much credit for winning the toughest of the Final Five on Sunday against the New York Giants. Beating the defending champions on the road is good for a team's confidence as well as its place in the standings.

A lot happened after the Eagles got out of the Meadowlands wind. The Dallas Cowboys spit up a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in Pittsburgh - a loss that will rattle all the ghostly chains of recent December meltdowns at the Metroplex. The Cowboys are becoming even more reliably collapsible than the New York Mets.

Later Sunday, the Washington R-word went to Baltimore and got thumped by John Harbaugh's Ravens. That dropped Washington (7-6) behind the Eagles in the wild-card race.

Those results - along with Atlanta's loss - brought remarkable clarity to the Eagles' situation: remarkable as far as their prospects, remarkable as far as how simple things are with three games to play.

If they win the rest of their games and the Falcons lose just once more, the Eagles are in the playoffs.

Winning all three would mean hanging additional losses on Dallas and Washington. That would give the Eagles the edge on both of those NFC East rivals. Assuming Carolina or Tampa (both 9-3 going into their game last night) takes one wild-card berth, Atlanta would be the only viable contender for the other. The Falcons (8-5) finish against the Bucs, Vikings and Rams.

The tie that sticks out from the end of the Eagles' 7-5-1 record simplifies things. They are unlikely to finish with the same record as any of the other wild-card contenders, since ties are rare enough to flummox quarterbacks and other players. But they beat Atlanta, so finishing with the same record as the Falcons would actually benefit the Eagles.

As in '06, three of the Eagles' Final Five are against the rest of the NFC East. In '06, all three of those games were on the road. This time, the Eagles play the Giants and Washington on the road and the Cowboys at home.

Washington found out yesterday that Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels is finished for the season with a triceps injury. Coming off two consecutive losses, the R-word are as cold as the Eagles are hot.

As for Dallas, the stage is set for the kind of complete breakdown that could claim coach Wade Phillips. Tony Romo - who has serious big-game shrinkage issues - threw an interception that lost Sunday's game. The TV cameras caught Terrell Owens yelling on the sideline again. Yesterday, owner Jerry Jones questioned the toughness of running back Marion Barber, who sat the game out with a toe injury.

In short, neither of these teams looks as daunting as it did a few weeks ago. Both are beatable, especially if the Eagles continue to bring the urgency and smarts on display in their two recent wins (and that includes the coaching staff).

In 2006, Jeff Garcia was a major part of the story, and deservedly so. He filled in more than capably after Donovan McNabb blew out his knee. But now it's fair to wonder if Garcia got too much credit for inspiring the rest of the team. He's long gone, and the Eagles are once again rallying in the final month.

It may just be a characteristic of this team that it finds a higher gear in December. That gear may not be high enough to win a Super Bowl, not this year, but it beats the alternative.

Ask the Cowboys.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.