REMEMBER WHEN this Eagles season was going to be all about trying to match up with the Cowboys?

Almost a full year ago, they played two games in the brand-new Jerrydome in Arlington, Texas, 6 days apart. The Eagles went in 11-4, thinking about the Super Bowl. They exited 11-6, their season done after the first round of the playoffs. Cumulative score was 58-14. An offseason of dramatic change ensued, after Eagles president Joe Banner spoke of the need to close a "gap" between the teams.

It's good to get a refresher, because all that seems so long ago now, as the 8-4 Eagles prepare for a Sunday night visit with the 4-8 Cowboys, at the scene of last season's crimes.

Defensive tackle Antonio Dixon said he didn't really consider this a payback game.

"Too much has changed," said Dixon, a reserve last season who probably will start Sunday.

Dixon suggested that the game is important more because of how it could affect the Eagles' prospects in the tight NFC playoff struggle, rather than because of the need for vengeance.

"We can control our own destiny, we just have to play week by week," he said.

Strong safety Quintin Mikell wasn't in a mood to reflect on Dallas' shifting fate.

"I don't really care if they're in the playoffs or not. They're a good team, but I feel we can beat anybody," Mikell said yesterday.

"It was frustrating, because they put us out. They not only put us out, but they embarrassed us," Mikell said. "That kind of fueled the offseason and all that stuff . . . We're not expecting what happened last year to happen this year. We have a different mindset, different team with different abilities.

"I think this [Eagles] team is better. I think this team is more explosive. We have more playmakers, all across the board. Even though we're young, I feel like we're a smarter team and we're a team of natural football players," Mikell said.

He said natural football players are guys who "are going to put their head in and smash people, guys who are going to get off blocks and just play football, play smart."

When the Eagles take the field Sunday evening, they are likely to start eight offensive players and six defensive players who started that Jan. 9 playoff meeting. Of 23 Eagles subs from that game, 12 are not on this week's roster.

"I think they're a better team," Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware said yesterday, when asked about the Eagles on a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters. Ware is primarily concerned with the Birds' offense, which he said doesn't make many mistakes. "They're not a one-dimensional team, they can run the ball and get the job done," he said.

The Eagles said goodbye to Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Sheldon Brown and several others who played significant roles in the Dallas losses after last season. They dressed 11 rookies for their most recent game, a 34-24 victory over Houston a week ago tonight. They are in the process of becoming Michael Vick's team, fast, aggressive and resilient, despite substantive flaws.

"The confidence level on this team, especially the offense, is so high," running back LeSean McCoy said. "Guys are doing whatever it takes to win, making plays, and just kind of competing with each other."

Right tackle Winston Justice, who said he hopes to practice today and to play Sunday after sitting out yesterday with a left knee hyperextension, said: "I think we have a different personality than we did last year. I think we're young and very explosive . . . I think we're more confident than we were."

The Cowboys have seen some changes as well, after starting the season as Super Bowl favorites, then winning only one of their first eight games. Jason Garrett is the interim coach now, you might have heard. Jon Kitna became the quarterback when Tony Romo broke his collarbone on Oct. 25. Dallas retains eight of the 11 offensive starters from last January, nine of 11 on defense, though 13 of the 23 Cowboys subs will be different.

"Both teams are very similar to what they were last year, as far as the scheme part," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "There are different players in some spots, and we'll go play."

Reid said his team is "not worried about what happened last year or in the future or anything else. It's all about right now."

Dallas is 3-1 under Garrett, finally playing like the team everyone expected the Cowboys to be, almost certainly too late to make the playoffs.

"It seems guys like that, they're playing for the coach," Eagles defensive end Darryl Tapp said. "They're emphasizing the run, to help out Kitna."

"Their defense is the same defense that beat us three times in a row last year," including a 20-16 Eagles setback Nov. 8 at the Linc, Justice noted. "I was surprised [by the Cowboys' 1-7 start], because that defense is really impressive. It's funny how things work out in the NFL sometimes. But they still have the potential to be what they were, because it's the same guys."

Of course, just because the Eagles' season is no longer about matching up with the Cowboys, that doesn't mean the Eagles have forgotten exactly how their 2009 season turned to mush.

"I just remember being in the locker room and the look on everyone's face," strongside linebacker Moise Fokou said. "It was kind of devastating, getting it handed to you twice, back to back like that . . . It was very shocking . . . A rivalry game - those are usually good games."

Left guard Todd Herremans said there was nothing to be gained from remembering last season or marveling over how circumstances have changed in 11 months.

"You can't really carry stuff over," Herremans said. "We just have to approach 'em like they're the Cowboys, who we need to beat twice to win our division."

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