Take a close look at this Eagles team and you will find one that was built specifically with the Dallas Cowboys in mind.

It took a little more than 11 months, 12 games, and many twists and turns along the way, but when the Eagles travel to Dallas for Sunday night's game they will finally learn if those modifications will bear fruit.

So what if a victory over their NFC East rival Cowboys won't be as sweet as this game was meant to be? If the Eagles beat 4-8 Dallas they will top an opponent that swept them in three meetings last season, embarrassing them in the season finale and the following week in the playoffs.

Those two losses - by a combined score of 58-14 - prompted deep introspection by the Eagles and ultimately significant changes. Twenty-one of 53 players on the playoff roster were sent packing in the off-season, including several cornerstones of the franchise over the previous decade. Many of those players were north of 30 years of age.

Changes were also made in the coaching staff, the front office, and key organizational positions. But the Eagles' addition of younger, faster, and what they believe are football-savvy players was enacted with an eye toward Big D.

"I wouldn't say that," Eagles coach Andy Reid said diplomatically Wednesday. "I would be slamming the guys that were here, and I wouldn't do that."

Many of those players jettisoned were Reid's "guys" for many successful seasons - quarterback Donovan McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, offensive lineman Shawn Andrews, and cornerback Sheldon Brown, to name the most prominent.

"Obviously, the way that season ended was embarrassing to everyone in the organization," Eagles safety Quintin Mikell said. "Maybe it was a decision that needed to be made. I don't know."

For all the changes that were made, the core team philosophy stayed the same. But Mikell said that this team was better equipped than last year's squad - which was also 8-4 at this juncture - to handle Dallas.

"I think this team is more explosive. We have more playmakers all across the board," said Mikell, the Eagles' longest-tenured position player. "Even though we're young I feel like we're a smarter team, and we're a team of actual football players."

It might not be fair to follow that statement with a comparison between this year's quarterback and last year's. First off, it was Kevin Kolb who was supposed to be McNabb's replacement. But the following theory holds true even now that Michael Vick is under center: The personality of the Eagles has changed with the quarterback.

Vick is much more businesslike than McNabb, who tried to keep the atmosphere loose.

"I know that you can set the tone for these guys, as far as the intensity that you play with, going out on the field and how you practice, being precise and just with your leadership," Vick said. "So my attitude is to go out and be the best that I can be, and I hope that rubs off on these guys."

McNabb's approach worked for most of his 11 seasons with the Eagles. But before the playoff loss to the Cowboys - and what proved to be his final game in midnight green - McNabb was caught by cameras strumming an air guitar as he walked through the Cowboys Stadium tunnel before introductions.

"I didn't even see the whole guitar thing until this season," Mikell said. "I was just like, 'What?' I didn't even know about that until this year, and I was just like, 'OK, that makes sense.' "

Mikell was referring to the criticism McNabb received from Eagles fans who were infuriated over McNabb's pregame silliness. That hardly had anything to do with the Eagles' decision to trade their franchise quarterback three months later.

Although the Eagles were 11-9 against Dallas under McNabb, the last two losses left a sour taste, and not just because of the quarterback play.

The Eagles were dominated in nearly every facet. The most glaring disparity was along the lines. The Cowboys' offensive line manhandled the Eagles' front seven in both the run game and in pass protection. Dallas gained 377 yards at 4.9 yards a carry and scored three touchdowns on the ground. Quarterback Tony Romo, meanwhile, threw for 523 yards, completed 68 percent of his passes, and was sacked only four times.

The Cowboys preyed on an overaggressive defense with draws, screens, and hitch passes.

The Eagles also said that they had been outmuscled by Dallas, especially on defense. So they brought in a new strength and conditioning team and got younger and quicker, drafting players such as defensive end Brandon Graham and safety Nate Allen and trading for linebacker Ernie Sims and defensive end Darryl Tapp.

On offense, the changes were minimal, except for that quarterback switch.

Still, if the Eagles lose to the Cowboys on Sunday it would suggest that the changes were all for naught.

"We have a different mind-set, a different team, different abilities," Mikell said, "and we're going to be on the attack the whole game."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Jeff_McLane.