Cowboys finally have right mental makeup to succeed in playoffs

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Of all the things that have changed with the Dallas Cowboys since their 2008 season ended with a 44-6, playoff-denying thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, humility is the most noticeable.

Oh, they were happy that they pounded the Eagles 24-0 on Sunday to clinch the NFC East title and exorcise some of the demons that have haunted this team (and still do until it does something in the playoffs), but there wasn't any gloating. After repeatedly being humbled, this team, as a whole, seemed to understand that this season of finally fulfilling expectations could be reduced to nothing should they lose in the wild-card round -- to Philadelphia.

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Maybe if they weren't playing the same opponent, one that it shut out (the Eagles had not been held scoreless since Dec. 5, 2005 in a 42-0 rout vs. Seattle), one that it beat twice in the regular season, a few guys might have popped off.

But this team is different. At the very least, it is smarter in terms of muting any bulletin board material. Knowing that, as linebacker Keith Brooking said about winning the division, "We got a hat. I want a ring. I want a trophy. That's what our goals are."

Owner Jerry Jones almost slipped up when he talked about the changes in the locker room that brought about a character evolution, but he caught himself before he could mention two syllables that rhymed with "We" and "Know." He didn't want to go there. Like nearly every player in the locker room, Jones opted to focus on the guys in the building and what lies ahead.

"We've had several of our young players that have vastly improved," Jones said. "We've had a quarterback (Tony Romo) that has gotten better each week and certainly a lot of his effort has improved. You're seeing that. Then we've had a defense that with coach] [Wade Phillips' influence has adapted into what he wants. Add all that together and we're going into the playoffs in about as good of shape as I could have expected."

The reality of hosting a playoff game in the $1 billion Jones-Mahal was enough to divert the owner's attention for a moment and he savored that moment like a sweet cigar, too.

Back to his point, though, about going into the playoffs in about as good of shape as he could have expected; if you're the Eagles, do you really want to have to deal with these guys one more time?

"We don't have any other options," Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said.

What happened Sunday was a good-old fashioned whipping. And it was the second time Dallas had taken away everything the Eagles like to do, manipulated what it does best and very much made Philadelphia feel victimized.

Freshly minted Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson might have lit up every other team in the NFL, but he has a total of five catches for 76 yards and no touchdowns in two games against the Cowboys. Jeremy Maclin and all of Philadelphia's other explosive weapons have been dulled by Dallas, to the point where the only real threat is tight end Brent Celek.

The Cowboys have cornerbacks that can run with Jackson and Maclin. They have safeties who can deal with the slot threats. More importantly, they have a front seven that can win individual battles, get quarterbacks off kilter -- and not just Donovan McNabb, who was off target and not focused Sunday -- and make seemingly unstoppable offenses look mortal.

The Chargers and Saints couldn't ring up their usual huge numbers against the Cowboys, while the Redskins and Eagles were shut on in back-to-back weeks, a franchise first for Dallas. And don't forget, Philadelphia had one of the hottest offenses in the NFL over the past month, scoring 136 points in the last four games (34-point average) before leaving Cowboys Stadium with the same total.

If defense wins championships, Dallas is in play.

"This team is set up perfectly to make a run in the playoffs," said Brooking, who has been a unifying factor after being imported to Dallas via free agency in the offseason to bring some much-needed leadership into the locker room. "We've dealt with ups and downs over the course of the year and we've grown up as a team. We know we're going to get [Philadelphia's] best shot next week. The key for us is to not allow those big plays. We took some shots [Sunday]. Our defensive backs played well, our front guys played really well. We played with great fire and intensity and we had a lot of fun out there."

Beating a team three times in one season isn't easy and it won't be easy Saturday (8 p.m. ET). The Eagles are still a dangerous team and there's no reason to think that McNabb will be as unsettled or Philadelphia's defense (allowed 474 total yards) will be such a soft touch. Don't forget, this is Dallas too, which has a way of soiling the big moment.

Even so, to doubt that the Cowboys can make a serious run in the postseason might be a little premature.

They are the hot team in the NFC, and hot teams have a way of wreaking havoc this time of year. The offense isn't turning the ball over. They can run, they can throw and they have playmakers making plays. The defense is playing better than any other in the conference. Overall, Dallas is the most physical team in the postseason, possibly in both conferences.

A quick look at the NFC playoffs threats and there is no reason to believe Dallas doesn't have a shot:

Minnesota regained some traction over the past six quarters and it earned the second seed by embarrassing the we-don't-mind-being-embarrassed Giants in the finale, but the Vikings aren't completely settled.

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The Eagles are dangerous but the Cowboys might have their number.

Arizona can beat any team when it feels like it and lose to any team when it doesn't.

New Orleans' cloak of invincibility has been peeled back, with Dallas unsheathing the first layer and showing every other team that the Saints can be had by beating up the guys up front, getting after the quarterback and making New Orleans guard against the big play -- the same formula that's worked against the Eagles.

Green Bay, that's the unknown threat, which, like Dallas, nobody really wants to mess with. It plays a scary 3-4 defensive front that creates turnovers on the back end, has a scorching hot quarterback, playmaking receivers and a running game that no one seems to be aware of except for the teams that have been unable to stop it.

"That's the way to go into the playoffs," said Phillips. "We still have the playoffs to go but I think that's the way you need to go into the playoffs. We certainly couldn't go in on a higher note."

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