ARLINGTON, Texas - The Eagles had to dawdle away the shank of the afternoon in their hotel not far from Cowboys Stadium on Sunday, but by the time they actually boarded the bus and got to the big spaceship on the prairie as sundown approached, at least they knew precisely the opportunity that lay before them.
It doesn't take a student of advanced mathematics to know that a logjam has been created by the NFC teams with similar records hoping for at least a wild-card berth into the playoffs. Predicting how it will shake out in three weeks is dangerous business and there will be teams that are surprisingly left out and teams that surprisingly are invited. There will also be a representative of the West Division, which doesn't seem entirely fair - its leaders are currently tied with 6-7 records - but nevertheless.
The Eagles entered Sunday night's game with Dallas as one of the bubble teams in the conference, fighting for the division lead with the Giants and eyeballing everyone else for one of the two NFC wild-card slots.
They emerged from the 30-27, come-from-behind win with no guarantees but with a little bit of an edge they didn't have before. The opportunity was there on the scoreboard, with the results of the games from earlier in the day, and they took advantage of it.
With losses being absorbed by the Bears and Packers, the Eagles were able to improve their position relative to those teams, one of which is going to be in the wild-card race. They still don't know whether their position was improved relative to the Giants, whose game was delayed until Monday night by the great Norse god of Minnesota - but the Eagles probably don't mind waiting for that result.
The Giants-Vikings game was moved to Detroit when the laws of physics were applied to the Metrodome roof, and that means New York gets one fewer day to recover and prepare for Sunday's showdown against the Eagles in the Meadowlands, which could turn out to be for nothing less than the division championship.
It would be nice to report that the win over the Cowboys, in addition to being mathematically helpful, was a character win for the Eagles, but it wasn't the most uplifting of performances. It was good for the soul, perhaps, and good for the standings, but not entirely good.
At some point, it is difficult to keep saying the Eagles are well-coached when they continue to do very stupid things that lead to penalties. The unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on DeSean Jackson for his homage to Greg Louganis at the close of the 91-yard catch and run for a touchdown is the most obvious example of unnecessary foolishness, with the helmet shove by Jorrick Calvin a close second.
But those are no worse, in some ways, than the flow-of-the-game penalties that handed three first downs to the Cowboys and led directly to 10 Dallas points. It's a different lack of discipline, but it is a leak in the Eagles' game that Andy Reid can't seem to plug.
And once again, the defense wasn't nearly good enough and couldn't shut down yet another team that should have been shut down at the end. Ahead, 30-20, midway through the fourth quarter, the Eagles were unable to keep Jon Kitna from taking Dallas 80 yards for a touchdown. That made one last drive by the offense a necessity rather than a luxury.
The Eagles won on Sunday night because their offense was able to produce just enough big plays to put points on the board and outplay the lapses of their defense. Big plays win games, but the Eagles are depending on them far too often. Twenty-four of their 30 points came on drives that included monster plays. Take away just one of those, and they lose the game.
Some of the issue is that the defense is not at full strength, particularly with the absence of Asante Samuel. Now that the knee "tweak" has caused him to miss three games, it is fair to wonder when he will be able to return. The situation didn't get any easier on Sunday night when Stewart Bradley dislocated his right elbow and Brandon Graham went down with a knee injury.
Beyond that, everything is moot if the Eagles don't find a better way to protect Michael Vick. He took too much abuse, and, again, the injury situation has a role in that. With Winston Justice out and King Dunlap inserted at right tackle, Vick's blind side is as dangerous as walking across the Schuylkill Expressway with your eyes closed.
Vick kept getting back up, though, and kept making big plays, just enough for the win. There was an opportunity at stake down there on the field, and they played for it. They played through their own mistakes and their own stupidity, but they took advantage of what was before them. More than the Bears and Packers could say.