No late-season swoon for Cowboys

Keith Brooking was hooting and hollering long before the Dallas Cowboys gave 100,000-plus fans something big to cheer about.


During pre-game warm-ups Sunday, Brooking gathered his teammates near midfield for an inspirational speech.


"We know what we want to do!" Brooking screamed during the pep talk. "We know where we want to go!"


Unlike the past 13 years' worth of Cowboys teams, this club may actually get there.


A 24-0 waxing of Philadelphia was ample proof. In what has become a wide-open NFC, Dallas will now enter the playoffs with as good a chance as anyone of reaching Super Bowl XLIV.


Philadelphia is well aware. By losing, the Eagles must return next weekend for an opening-round rematch at Dallas Cowboys Stadium after having already lost two regular-season meetings to the Cowboys.


In other words, Cry Eagles Cry.


"I really believe in all my heart that this team is set up to make a run at this thing," Brooking said after the first back-to-back Cowboys shutouts in the franchise's 50-year history.


Three weeks ago, few outside the Cowboys locker room saw this late-season run — let alone an NFC East crown – on the horizon. Dallas (11-5) was en route to yet another swoon, having lost consecutive games to the New York Giants and San Diego. But a 24-17 road upset of previously undefeated New Orleans was the first sign Dallas might rally for its first winning December/January record since 1996. The Cowboys followed with a 17-0 shutout of Washington to clinch a playoff berth.


"This year is different," said center Andre Gurode, who joined the Cowboys in 2002. "Guys play for each other. Guys believe in each other. We try not to let anything come between us and separate us. We're one big family. I really can't tell you how it happened. But it happened."


My hypothesis: Releasing controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens and adding a respected veteran like Brooking to a talented yet immature roster helped. So did the continuing development of players with names both big (quarterback Tony Romo) and small (wide receiver Miles Austin). Cowboys coach Wade Phillips also deserves credit for guiding his squad through some rough times and the outside pressure that comes with Dallas being the NFL's glamour franchise.


"You have to credit Wade, his approach and instilling in players that we go through an up-and-down season," said Romo, who burned the Eagles for 311 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-34 passing. "A world champion is crowned every year in October, but it doesn't usually go that way. Keep grinding and you'll accomplish your goals."


The Eagles (11-5) had a chance to achieve three major goals Sunday: the conference's No. 2 playoff seed, the NFC East title and a first-round bye. All slipped through their fingers like the shotgun snap that quarterback Donovan McNabb fumbled in the second quarter inside the Dallas red zone. That turnover was one of multiple opportunities squandered by an offense marred by mistimed passes and dropped throws. Eagles kicker David Akers added to the misery early in the third quarter, missing a 53-yard field-goal try that would have cut the Cowboys' lead to 17-3. The Eagles needed every point they could muster with Romo and a strong running game thumping Philadelphia's defense from the get-go.


I was admittedly bullish on the Eagles entering the playoffs after covering last Sunday's 30-27 home victory over Denver. I'm not sure where that team was Sunday. Sloppy execution and a surprising lack of fire against a hated division rival — especially considering what was at stake — ended Philadelphia's six-game winning streak.


"This is a wake-up call," said Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant, whose team was blanked for the first time since December 2005. "You don't want to go into the playoffs playing the way we did today."


I still think the Eagles can cause some postseason damage. But the road to Super Bowl XLIV is now much longer and tougher than it needed to be — and it runs straight through Dallas.


"Things manifest as you win games," Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears said. "I've always felt good about this team. We just somehow in the past couldn't get it done. Hopefully, this will change the course of history of what we've been doing here."


The shift has already begun.


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