PHILADELPHIA -- It was a happy bunch of Dallas Cowboys who filed off the Lincoln Financial Field and into the tiny visitors locker room. They'd scored in every way imaginable in a 38-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, and to hear the chatter and chirp from the time the game ended until they got on the bus, you'd never have known they were still a game under .500.
"The importance of this game," quarterback Tony Romo said, "was at the highest of levels."
And not just because they didn't want to be 3-6, as the Eagles now are. The biggest reason this game mattered was the result of an early-afternoon game 580 miles west of here in which the NFC East-leading New York Giants got their big blue heads handed to them by the Cincinnati Bengals. That game dropped the Giants, who two weeks ago were in position to run away with this division, to 6-4. The Cowboys, despite being under .500, are a game and a half out of first place. And if they can beat the 2-7 Browns at home next week with the Giants on their bye, the Cowboys will be one game out with six to play.
What this means is opportunity -- and the Cowboys are well aware of this. Neither their victory, with its 13 penalties, nor the Giants' loss suddenly erases all of the Cowboys' problems or makes them a top NFC team. But that confluence of events creates an opportunity for the Cowboys to get back into a division race that has a chance to be as halting and uninspiring as last year's was.
The Giants remain in the NFC East lead, but they have the worst record among the eight first-place teams in the NFL right now. They also have games remaining against the Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens to go with always-troublesome division games against the Eagles and the Washington Redskins. The Giants would have to play extremely well for the rest of the season just to get to 10 wins, and right now they are not playing well at all. It's possible they'll come out of their late-season bye week energized and looking like the juggernaut offense they were in September and early October, but if they don't, it's possible that the NFC East champion will again have nine wins this year, or even (gulp) eight.
And in that universe, these Cowboys have a chance.
"I don't know that 'confident' is the right thing to say, but I do know this is the way to do it," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of his team's chances the rest of the way. "A win in our division, on the road, is the way to do it. Getting on a roll is the way to do it."
So now it's time for the "ifs." If the Cowboys can tighten up the penalty problems, if they can establish a run game that allows them to control the flow of the game, if they can force turnovers as they did Sunday, if they can avoid turnovers as they have the past two weeks and if the Giants continue to play poorly, the Cowboys could conceivably sneak in and steal this division title in what appears to be a rebuilding season. The opportunity is there for them, and they're coming off a game in which they did a lot of things well. They returned a punt for a touchdown -- something that no NFC East team had done since DeSean Jackson broke the Giants' hearts in the Meadowlands in December of 2010. They returned an interception for a touchdown. They recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Romo hooked up with Dez Bryant for a 30-yard touchdown on as pretty a throw-and-catch as you'll ever see.
"Any time you can score miscellaneous touchdowns in this league, you're going to have a good opportunity to win," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
The opportunities will continue to present themselves. Of the Cowboys' remaining seven games, five are home games. And yeah, you'll say they're only 1-2 at home and 8-11 there over the past three seasons. So what does that matter? The fact is, after they land at home Sunday night, the Cowboys begin a six-week stretch in which they are required to take exactly one round-trip flight. Not having to travel is easier on the body, easier on the mind and easier on the routine. It can help, as can the fact that only one of their remaining seven games is against a team that currently has a winning record. The combined record of the teams that have beaten the Cowboys this year is 34-12 (pending the result of the Bears' Sunday night game). The combined record of the teams left on their schedule is 21-32.
"I don't know that you can exhale at 4-5, but it's just good to get a win," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "We've got to stay to the grind. We're not out of it, but we still have some work to do to get back on the other side of it."
The impact of Sunday's NFC East game results, however, is that the Cowboys may not have to get all that far onto the other side of .500 to reach this year's playoffs. And with the tough part of the schedule behind them and a fresh opportunity having sprung up thanks to the struggles of the Giants and the Eagles, that's something to which they can pin hopes that not long ago appeared ready to flicker out.
"Show a little faith," Bruce Springsteen once sang, "There's magic in the night. You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're all right."
It might not be pretty, but as of this moment there's a race in the NFC East. And the Cowboys are in it.