IF THIS WAS the class of the NFC East, then the NFC East has no class.

The Eagles played for first place in their division and lost, to a sloppy, depleted Cowboys team that showed up without bullets.

Then again, the Eagles brought knives to this gunfight.

Dull knives.

A 17-3 loss does not begin to represent the futility with which the Eagles played. They couldn't stop Dallas' only weapons. They gave up a game-changing kick return that set up what was the winning touchdown. They couldn't run the ball. Their playmaking receiver couldn't get open.

More than anything else, Nick Foles was lousy.

As things progressed the Eagles' young gunslinger grew gun-shy. Foles, the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week after a wonderful stand-in for starter Michael Vick in Tampa, completed 11 of 29 passes for 80 yards before leaving at the end of the third period with what is assumed to be a concussion. He was examined by a neurologist and did not return.

Fourth-round rookie Matt Barkley debuted and threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter.

"You've got to understand . . . it's his first time playing," head coach Chip Kelly said.

And, perhaps, his last.

The good news for the Birds: Philadelphia's sheriff might be ready next week.

Vick worked out before the game. He could return when the Giants' visit Sunday.

"I'm hopeful Mike will be back," said Kelly, probably substituting "hopeful" for "desperate."

How can Vick prove himself fit to play Sunday?

"Mike needs to prove it to himself," Kelly said. "Mike understands his body."

Mike understands that his body makes a huge difference. His presence might be the biggest difference-maker in the division.

With Vick, the Eagles beat Washington and the Giants. With Vick, the Eagles are appreciably better than either team. They might be better than the Cowboys, too.

It wouldn't take much.

"People can say what they want about the NFC East," said safety Nate Allen. "We can't worry about that. We just want to end up on top of it."

They won't be on top of anything if they cannot win at home. The 3-4 Eagles are 0-3 at home this season and winless in their last nine home games.

"That's embarrassing," said center Jason Kelce.

Especially when the Cowboys (4-3) play this badly. Yes, Tony Romo threw for 317 yards, but he was 28-for-47 with two interceptions (OK, just one, really; Hail Mary). Yes, receiver Dez Bryant caught eight passes for 110 yards.

But the Cowboys committed 12 penalties . . . and still, somehow, controlled the game throughout.

The Eagles got a fine defensive effort for a second straight week, but, simply, they needed more from Foles.

"He was off," Kelly said.

In a word.

In Foles' eighth career start, and the second of his second season, he nearly threw an interception on the Eagles' first trip into the red zone, which didn't come until the end of the third quarter. The Eagles had created a turnover, and Foles nearly threw it all away.

Thereafter he played as if he was terrified of losing a game that he needed to want to win.

After Kelly went for it on fourh-and-1 from the 11, Foles refused to throw to lightly covered receivers on his next two pass plays despite having ample time; beyond ample, really. At the end of a drive that had everything - begun by DeMeco Ryans' interception of Romo, returned to the Cowboys' 30, and featuring a challenge, two injuries and a fourth-and-are-you-nuts - the Eagles, who had made it to the 9, had to settle for a short field goal.

"We really had no points," Kelce admitted. "The only points we got came off a turnover."

Foles' hesitance hastened his own demise.

Foles was injured on the final play, a sack. Jarius Wynn and George Selvie, 550 pounds of defensive linemen, sandwiched him. Foles reeled to the bench then lumbered to the locker room, likely done for at least next week's game, perhaps longer.

That means either more Barkley (who also threw an interception that was called back because of a penalty) or Vick's premature return. Vick made it clear last week that he was not close to being ready to return from a left hamstring pull suffered 2 weeks ago at the Giants.

Maybe Vick can modulate his play, hang in the pocket and not aggravate the injury. After all, it's just the Giants, winless entering tonight's game against the Vikings. Vick might be able to beat them on crutches.

It has been used before, but NFC Least has never been more appropriate.

Consider:

The Cowboys took to the road and manhandled the Eagles without their Pro Bowl defensive end, DeMarcus Ware, the latest of three would-be starters on the defensive line to miss time. They also played without starting running back DeMarco Murray. They gave safety help in covering dangerous receiver DeSean Jackson and keyed on every move of running back LeSean McCoy. They combined for 102 total yards, less than half of their average entering the game.

"There was so much to gain from this game," McCoy lamented.

Usually, when McCoy disappears Jackson explodes. Not yesterday.

Jackson, the Eagles' $48 million playmaker, could not shake Brandon Carr, the Cowboys' $50 million corner. Jackson left the game during the Eagles' sole scoring drive with a right ankle sprain but returned during the same drive. It didn't matter much.

"Hot and cold," Kelly said, reviewing Jackson's afternoon.

Jackson, with three catches for a season-low 21 yards, ran hot on the sideline in the first half and needed Kelce's calming voice to keep his head in the game.

"DeSean was a little frustrated with a play that happened," Kelce said.

At least Jackson showed a little life.

Brilliant Cowboys coordinator Monte Kiffin, who helped Tony Dungy construct watertightdefenses a decade ago in Tampa, had Kelly and Foles baffled at what they saw. Kiffin's defenders seemed to know the Eagles' plans better than Foles.

Foles overthrew four targets, threw behind five others, took three sacks and committed an intentional grounding.

The fifth underthrow, to sure-handed Jason Avant in the end zone, deflected off Avant's hands and into the arms of J.J. Wilcox. However, review determined the ball hit the ground. The Eagles retained possession and managed that field goal.

Otherwise?

Kelly's dynamic offense, ranked fourth in scoring, would have been shut out, at home, by a defense ranked 21st in the same category.

This was the best of the Least.

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