- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

IRVING, Texas — The Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to get buried by December road games against all three division foes, especially with retread backup Jeff Garcia running the offense.

Turns out that challenge was exactly what they needed to grab control of the NFC East.

After close calls in Washington and New York, Garcia and the Philadelphia defense made it a clean sweep with a surprisingly easy 23-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys yesterday.

Garcia led the Eagles (9-6) to scores on four of their first five drives and the defense forced Tony Romo and the Cowboys into easily their least-productive game of the season. The victory — actually Philadelphia’s fourth straight — clinched a wild-card berth and moved it into first place in the division with one game left.

“We took a situation where things weren’t looking good, with some major hurdles to overcome, and we found a way to win,” said Garcia, who improved to 4-1 since replacing an injured Donovan McNabb. “It’s this playoff mentality we’ve had over the past month that’s carried us.”

Philadelphia coach Andy Reid laughed about how easy it has been since his team was 5-6 after losing Garcia’s first start.

“We thought it would be a cakewalk,” he said with a wry smile. “Every one of those games has been huge. The guys have buckled down against some good teams. Our players knew what was ahead of them. Everybody really pulled closer together.”

The Eagles can win the division for the fifth time in six years by beating Atlanta at home Sunday. Philadelphia also could clinch if Dallas loses its finale to Detroit.

The only way the Cowboys (9-6) can win the NFC East is by beating the Lions and by the Falcons knocking off the Eagles. Dallas no longer has a shot at the conference’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye; this game clinched that for New Orleans.

Garcia was 15-for-23 for 238 yards with a touchdown and an interception and ran for 43 yards. Brian Westbrook ran for 122 yards, and Correll Buckhalter had 38 yards and a touchdown.

Garcia set the tone with four third-down conversions on the opening series, then a 25-yard touchdown pass to barely covered Matt Schobel. After the defense made three straight goal-line stands against Marion Barber, the NFC touchdowns rushing leader, Garcia moved Philadelphia from its 4-yard line to the Dallas 2, setting up the first of three straight field goals by David Akers.

Garcia was able to work fast or slow. His quickie drive started at the Eagles 35 with 29 seconds left until halftime and ended with Akers’ second field goal; the drawn-out one burned exactly seven minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter, leaving Dallas only 6:47 to try mounting a comeback.

When Romo’s next pass was picked off, fans began hurrying to the exits. Romo-mentum was dead or at least not worth waiting for on a chilly Christmas evening.

“I saw us take control of the game,” Garcia said. “It wasn’t about them. It was about us.”

The Cowboys never led and hardly threatened, setting a season-low for points by 10 and yards by 119. It also was their second straight falling-on-their-face performance in a high-profile home game. Dallas was stomped 42-17 by New Orleans in a game for the second-best record in the NFC.

“We were noncompetitive,” coach Bill Parcells said, adding he told the team the same thing. “There’s nothing good to say. We just didn’t make any plays at all, either side of the ball. Just awful.”

Worse yet for Dallas: T.O. is unhappy.

With a somber tone contrasting the goofy Cowboys-branded Santa hat on his head, Terrell Owens griped: “I need to be more involved in the offense” at least three times in a press conference.

He absolved Romo for it, hinting as he had done before that the playcalling is to blame. He insisted he needs more balls early rather than late, a strange statement considering both his catches — for 23 yards, with a 14-yard touchdown — came in the first half.

As for himself, Owens didn’t see anything wrong with visiting the Eagles at their hotel Sunday night (“That’s my time, you know? … I’m not going to shy away from my friends for anybody”) and had an excuse for dropping a deep pass at a pivotal time in the game.

“He bumped me way down the field,” Owens said. “By the time I looked up and located the ball, it was right on me. … I thought they were going to throw a flag.”

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