It is less than a month since Philadelphia and the Dallas Cowboys last played each other, but even in that relatively short period the Eagles have become a different team.
After losing to Dallas 27-20 at Lincoln Financial Field on Nov. 11, the Eagles were hammered mercilessly by the New Orleans Saints. Since that 48-7 beatdown, though, the Eagles have turned around their season, and will now play the Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday for first place in the NFC East.
"We've talked about the New Orleans thing before, but listen, the New Orleans deal was, I think for us as a team, it wasn't us, No. 1," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said. "It wasn't how we expect to play or expect to finish a football game in that game. So we've kind of put ourselves in a position where each game from then on, really matters, and just focusing in on each week.
"The guys have done a great job during the week of practice, preparing themselves and understanding the game plan, and I think what you're seeing, too, is we had a lot of young guys -- we had some injuries in that game and a lot of young guys play in that game. And what you're seeing now is those young guys getting a little more confident each week every time they are out on the field defensively. And then the offense is catching a little bit of rhythm right now. It's been a good last couple of weeks against two quality division opponents."
Since losing to the Saints, the Eagles have beaten the New York Giants 25-22 and the Washington Redskins 28-13 to reach 6-6 and pull within a game of the 7-5 Cowboys.
When the Eagles last played Dallas, they played without running back Darren Sproles and cornerback Sidney Jones. Running back Josh Adams hadn't yet seized control of the position, and receiver Golden Tate was playing his first game as an Eagle since being acquired in a trade with the Detroit Lions.
Against Washington on Monday night, Sproles played in his first game since Sept. 6 and scored on a 14-yard touchdown run. His presence infused the offense with some life.
Adams had just seven carries for 47 yards in the first meeting as the Eagles ran for just 71 yards as a team. During their two-game win streak, he has carried the ball 42 times for 169 yards and a touchdown. Adams began the season on the practice squad but has made great strides recently.
Meanwhile, Tate is becoming more of a force on offense, and the team no longer looks like it is forcing the ball to him to get him involved. He scored his first touchdown as an Eagle, added a two-point conversion catch, and had seven catches for 85 yards on Monday night.
Finally, Jones is healthy again.
For the Cowboys, the goal is to come in each week and prepare, day by day, for the task at hand.
Head coach Jason Garrett stays on message so consistently that many in the Dallas area consider him to be boring to the point of seeming robotic. But his professionalism gets more and more admirable as the Cowboys' second-half winning streak continues.
This week's game appears crucial in the race for the NFC East championship. The Cowboys (7-5) are in first place in the division, a game ahead of the Eagles and Redskins at 6-6. A win over Philadelphia could possibly give Dallas a two-game lead in the NFC East (if the Redskins' current losing streak continues) and the tie-breaker over Philly with three games left in the season.
But that's no reason for Garrett to hit his own personal hype button. He dismissed the notion that there's another level for his team to reach in getting ready for this one.
"My experience in life and in football is that the best players, the best teams, they come to work every day," Garrett said. "They prepare the right way every day."
As the NFL season wears on and other teams fall out of contention -- the Redskins come to mind as they are forced to stay in the race with third-option quarterback Mark Sanchez -- Dallas' unflappability and consistency look pretty good. The Cowboys have a top-notch running game, a healthy quarterback in Dak Prescott, who has proven he can captain a winning ship, and a rapidly improving defense that currently ranks fifth in the NFL.
Just don't expect Garrett to start breaking down playoff scenarios.
"Really the same message we preach every day, a hundred times a day every way that we can," Garrett said. "It's about being our best. It's about focusing on us and the task at hand."