Before Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles can even think about playing at Cowboys Stadium in February, they're going to have to knock off the Dallas Cowboys. Twice, preferably. The Eagles are tied for first place in the NFC East with four games remaining, and two are against the Cowboys, their most dreaded division rival. They meet Sunday night on Dallas' home turf, the $1.2 billion site of the upcoming Super Bowl, then in Philadelphia on the final Sunday of the regular season.
Losing both could be disastrous for the Eagles (8-4). Winning both would go a long way toward helping them claim the division title or at least a wild card. It also would help make up for the way last season ended -- a shutout loss in the regular-season finale at Cowboys Stadium, then a 34-14 loss in a wild-card game played there six days later.
"Oh, man, if you can't get motivated by that, I don't know what will motivate you," Vick said. "I wasn't even on the field playing and it hurt me deeply. I can imagine what the guys who were out there are feeling now." The teams haven't met since. What a shame for Philadelphia.
Because the NFL moved some division games into the final month to boost the stakes (and ratings), the Eagles missed a chance to kick the Cowboys while they were down. Now Dallas has recovered. Since a 1-7 start under coach Wade Phillips, the Cowboys are 3-1 under interim coach Jason Garrett. They're coming off an overtime win in Indianapolis.
"I think it shows the true character of a lot of players, to be in the situation where we are, and the fight that we have," tight end Jason Witten said. "Jason's instructions has been clear and everybody is following that up. A lot of those players are veteran guys that could've taken the easy way out. That shows the mental toughness you have to have to bounce back."
However, the best they can do this season is break even. While not yet eliminated from the playoffs, their chances are so remote that it might take the alignment of all the planets, plus Pluto regaining planet status and falling in line, too. There are still realistic goals, especially for Garrett. Beating Philadelphia once would clinch no worse than a break-even record for his tenure. Beating the Eagles twice would really impress team owner Jerry Jones as he considers whether to give Garrett the job permanently.
"I don't know if this is the time to be impressed by anything," Garrett said. "We've got work to do. ... But I think our team has fought well. They hear me talk a lot about adversity and challenges of this league. It's hard. It's hard to win on Sundays. You have to fight through different things to win. And I think our team is doing that."
The Cowboys have managed to thrive despite being without starting quarterback Tony Romo (broken collarbone). The training room is starting to get crowded, though, as Marion Barber could miss a second straight game because of a calf strain and rookie receiver Dez Bryant just went on injured reserve with a broken ankle suffered against the Colts.
Fill-in quarterback Jon Kitna has been a steadying force and so has an improved running game. New starter Felix Jones gained 83 yards against Indianapolis and Tashard Choice ran for 100 yards in relief. Dallas knew it had to run the last two weeks to keep Drew Brees and Peyton Manning on the sideline. The Cowboys will need to do so again Sunday night with Vick leading the Eagles to the most yards and second-most points in the NFL.
"You have to account for everything," said Vick, who also has moved into the top spot in Pro Bowl voting. "We're a pass-heavy team. We're going to throw the football, we're going to mix in the run, you've got to prepare for the wildcat, you've got to prepare for the pass, prepare for the scramble. It's not just me, it's the entire team and how the coach takes advantage of our talent." Philadelphia players should be fresh Sunday night, having gone from four games in 18 days to five days off before practicing Wednesday.
Coach Andy Reid's teams generally have done well late in the season, rested or not. He also is 14-9 against Dallas -- but lost all three games to the Cowboys last season. Coincidence or not, sweeping changes followed. Nearly half the roster turned over, with Donovan McNabb the headliner overall and among several 30-somethings sent packing.
"That didn't necessarily have anything to do with the games against the Cowboys," Reid insisted. "We needed to get younger and we did that. We did most of our stuff through the draft and not free agency. We had a fill a few holes in free agency. We were able to get most of it done with the draft and get a little younger." Whether the overhaul had the Cowboys in mind or not, they'll find out Sunday night -- and in the finale -- whether it was enough for them to reclaim the NFC East title Dallas won last season.
"We're going to come out on a mission," receiver Jeremy Maclin said. "Our mission is to achieve what we want to achieve, and not just beat Dallas. So, we know in order to do that, we have to beat Dallas this week."