Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
PHILADELPHIA -- It wouldn't be wise to make any sweeping judgments on the Dallas Cowboys until their cruelest month arrives in December, but it's fair to say they took an important step at the Linc on Sunday night. They returned to the site of one of the most regrettable performances in franchise history and seized control of first place in the NFC East with a 20-16 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Winners of four consecutive games, the 6-2 Cowboys will head to Green Bay next Sunday as one of the hottest teams in the league. And last season's 44-6 loss at the Linc could become a distant memory.
"We came out here and laid an egg," said inside linebacker Bradie James of last December's loss. "I won't ever forget that, but we were able to put that behind us and move forward today. Ever since that Kansas City game [a 26-20 Dallas OT victory Oct. 11], it's skyrocketed for us."
Sunday against the Eagles (5-3), the offense made a huge play in the fourth quarter to put the Cowboys on top, 20-13. But it was the defense that won this game. The Cowboys listened to everyone talk all week about how dangerous the Eagles' weapons were. But from the start, the Cowboys didn't let the speed of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin intimidate them. The Cowboys certainly double-teamed Jackson at times, but they didn't ask cornerback Terence Newman to follow him all over the field as he has done with star receivers in the past.
The Cowboys' game plan was to keep everything in front of them and not allow the big plays that the Eagles have thrived on this season. By the fourth quarter, Cowboys defenders said they could hear Eagles receivers voicing their frustration at not being able to break free. And it might have been some greediness on coach Andy Reid's part that led to a game-changing interception late in the third quarter.
Leading 13-10, the Eagles got the ball back at their 23-yard line. On first down, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin jogged off the line of scrimmage as if he was going to block before turning on the jets in an attempt to race past the Cowboys' secondary. Safety Ken Hamlin recognized from the start what Maclin was doing, and he shouted to second-year cornerback Mike Jenkins, "Stay back!" That proved to be good advice.
"I knew there was something fishy going on," Jenkins said. "Ken was telling me to get over the top of Maclin, so I started sprinting."
Jenkins matched Maclin step for step and then he undercut the route to pluck the interception. That led to a 33-yard field goal by Nick Folk, tying the score at 13. The Cowboys' defense only allowed one play of more than 25 yards -- and that was a 45-yard screen pass to LeSean McCoy.
Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware overwhelmed the Eagles' offensive line and stayed in quarterback Donovan McNabb's face throughout the game. McNabb was only 16-of-30 for 227 yards and he threw two interceptions. He appeared completely out of rhythm for much of the evening -- and the secondary played a large role in that. If you take away the deep ball from the Eagles, they're not much to look at. It's not like they can turn to a power running game.
"We took it personally that no one was giving us any respect," Jenkins said. "We've been shutting receivers completely down, but people weren't talking about it. I think we made a statement tonight. To come into their house and walk away with a win ... I think it's a big statement."
Even when last year's Cowboys were winning games early in the season, you could see trouble on the horizon. They were a sensitive bunch who couldn't believe it when anyone questioned them. This year's team seems to stay in the present, and players know that nothing will be handed to them.
The Eagles had second-and-1 at the Cowboys' 45-yard line early in the fourth quarter. McCoy was stuffed for no gain on consecutive plays by Anthony Spencer and James. Then McNabb tried to dive for the first down and was stopped by Marcus Spears.
I have no clue why a man with McNabb's lower body strength would try to leave his feet. But it was a huge play for the Cowboys, and Tony Romo connected with Miles Austin for a 49-yard touchdown pass four plays later.
"They ran the ball towards [Marcus] Spears' side and he said on Sundays his side was closed, and he made the big play again," said James. "There was a big pile but the ball fell our way. You never come to Lincoln Financial and not earn a victory here. I think there were a lot of guys out there that were making plays all over the place."
The Cowboys know that December looms, and that's why they need to keep stacking wins in November.