PHILADELPHIA -- Their celebration was muted by the knowledge that their coach, Bill Parcells, had buried his younger brother earlier in the day. But even as subdued as the atmosphere was in the visitor's locker room, the Dallas Cowboys fully understood the significance of what transpired here Monday night.
"You're talking about a [Philadelphia Eagles] team that has dominated this division for the last four years," said Dallas wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, following his team's improbable 21-20 victory. "But now we're seeing some change. Things are a lot more even. Yeah, maybe there's been a little bit of a shift, you know?"
A little shift? By scoring two touchdowns in a 21-second span -- the second on a 46-yard interception return by strong safety Roy Williams with 2 minutes and 43 seconds remaining in a game the Eagles had dominated for much of the first 57 minutes -- Dallas might have enacted the kind of cataclysmic movement in the NFC East generally associated with tectonic plates.
For the Eagles, who dropped to 4-5 and last place in the division, the stunning loss was an unnatural disaster. For the Cowboys, now 6-3 and tied with the New York Giants in the taut NFC East race, the unlikely comeback victory could prove to be a seismic event, the kind of win that galvanizes a team and catapults it to even bigger things.
The young Cowboys, who could muster very little offense after knotting the game 7-7 in the first quarter on a 1-yard run by rookie tailback Marion Barber, certainly possess the kind of talent to win their first division title since 1998. Having stolen a game they had no business winning, the Cowboys could now steal off with a playoff spot, although there is still a challenging schedule ahead of them.
Facing a 20-7 deficit, the Cowboys battled back when Drew Bledsoe connected with Terry Glenn on a 20-yard touchdown pass with 3:04 left in the game. The score culminated a 72-yard drive that represented the most pulse Dallas had demonstrated since much earlier in the evening.
"I really felt after Terry caught that ball," Parcells said, "that we at least had some shot."
Williams, who is often maligned for his coverage deficiencies, fired the biggest shot of the night, stepping in front of a Donovan McNabb pass intended for wide receiver Reggie Brown, then rumbling down the left sideline for the winning score. Linebacker Bradie James provided Williams a formidable escort and buried McNabb with a block on which the Eagles star aggravated the groin injury that has hampered him for weeks.
On the play, a second-and-7 from the Eagles' 38-yard line, Williams baited McNabb a bit, by first backing off into what appeared to be a cover 2 zone, and then walking up to the line of scrimmage just before the snap, as if he might blitz. Instead, the Cowboys were in a cover 3 and it appeared McNabb never saw Williams, who made a clean theft, righted himself and bolted up the sideline.
Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, asked whether there was confusion on the pattern Brown ran, said the route was a hitch route that converted to a fly route. Because cornerback Terence Newman was in press coverage, Brown ran the fly pattern, and McNabb underthrew the ball badly. The rarely quotable Reid insisted Brown made the correct route conversion and that the rookie receiver and McNabb simply "weren't on the same page."
By perhaps turning a new page against a Philadelphia team that has owned them of late, the Cowboys are a viable threat now to end the Eagles' four-year divisional run. There is little doubt, though, that the foundations for many championships were laid with the kind of character building victory Dallas forged against a proud Eagles team that may find it hard to recover from such a shattering defeat.
In his brief postgame remarks, a visibly emotional Parcells used the term fortunate no fewer than a half-dozen times.
But while you've got to be lucky sometimes in the NFL, you have to be good, too. And you've got to make the kind of plays that Dallas authored in the final three-plus minutes.
"It's not like they gave us the game," said tight end Jason Witten. "We went out and took it from them. Hey, we've lost games like that. So it's nice to steal one back."
Like several teammates, Witten was alluding, of course, to Dallas' meltdown against the Washington Redskins earlier this year, a Monday night defeat on Sept. 19 during which the Cowboys surrendered a pair of long touchdown catches by Santana Moss. That defeat still rankled the Cowboys, even two months after the fact, but Monday night should help to put it in the rearview mirror.
There is still a lot of football to be contested, and the Cowboys, who swept the division series from the reeling Eagles, have division games remaining with the Giants and the Redskins, both on the road. But this comeback victory was certainly a moment that could provide incredible momentum and confidence. It was also one that could bury the Eagles, who have lost three straight games in the same season for the first time since late 1999.
"All you can do," said tailback Brian Westbrook, who had 118 combined yards from scrimmage, "is pick up the pieces and go back to work."
There are a lot of pieces, though, to be glued back together. And like Humpty Dumpty, there is some question as to whether the limping Eagles can be made whole again. McNabb, who was replaced by Mike McMahon for the final series of the game, will have an MRI Tuesday morning but was limping badly as he crossed the locker room. Tight end L.J. Smith, who had a team-high six catches as the Eagles attempted to compensate for the absence of Terrell Owens, suffered a sprained ankle.
Philadelphia has enjoyed a long run of success, and Reid and team president Joe Banner, arguably the NFL's premier salary cap manager, have propped open the window of Super Bowl opportunity for an unusually generous stretch. But injuries, inconsistency and the distraction wrought by Owens could conspire to slam the window this season. The Eagles still have two dates remaining with the Giants, a division game versus Washington, and must also face Seattle, which leads the NFC West.
Operating without Owens for a second straight week, the Eagles played small ball Monday night, combining a surprisingly balanced offense with solid defense. The Eagles had a season-high 36 running plays, netting 181 yards, also a season-high. They had 41 pass plays, counting two sacks, but McNabb and McMahon had a combined quarterback rating of only 55.8.
In the first 40 minutes, McNabb completed only two passes to wide receivers. Young wideouts such as Brown and Greg Lewis are going to have to play significantly better to make up for Owens' productivity. Some deficiencies aside, Monday may well have been an auguring of how the Eagles approach the rest of the year, in terms of strategies.
"No matter how we play, we have to play a lot better. It's that simple," said middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who, until the final few minutes, had the biggest play of the night, pressuring Bledsoe into an interception in the second quarter when he roared inside on a blitz. "We're not a good enough team right now to give games away like this one. We can't make mistakes like we did."
The Cowboys preferred to think they forced the errors and that this was a kind of positive payback for some of the indignity the team suffered in the wake of their loss to the Redskins. And they saw the win as a gift to Parcells, whose brother Don died last week after a two-year battle with brain cancer; the coach traveled to New Jersey Monday for the burial service. It has been an especially difficult time of late for Parcells, when one factors in the death of former employer Wellington Mara, the late co-owner of the Giants.
Said Keyshawn Johnson: "[Parcells] never says much about that stuff. But if you play for him, and you care for him, you want to win for him."
But the Dallas players also left here wanting to win for themselves and believing that the comeback victory will become a rallying point, a springboard, the moment they will most cite as a turning point if they go on to capture the division title.
"I got such a good jump on the ball," said Williams of his interception, "that I had to tell myself, 'Roy, just catch the thing.' My eyes were huge. It was like I saw the Promised Land or something. But I know we've got to keep playing hard to complete the promise."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from the Associated Press was also used in this report. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.