Another stiff test for Dallas

The Cowboys have won three straight games to pull even with the Eagles in a tie for first place in the NFC East.

This weekend, they are headed to Philadelphia to break that tie with the Eagles.

Coach Wade Phillips has denied that last year's game will have any bearing on the 2009 meeting. But the players might have a different take.

The Cowboys were embarrassed and humiliated in a 44-6 season-ending loss last season. The defeat knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs.

"It was disgusting, painful to watch," receiver Patrick Crayton said about watching the film of last year's season-ending game.

"We just flat out got our tails whipped. No excuses. We had to sulk and had to deal with that the whole offseason."

It was the Cowboys' worst loss in 20 years, and the reaction to it -- a culmination of the 2008 season of missed opportunities -- was widespread change.

Two coaches, including defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, were let go and veteran players were sent packing, including Terrell Owens, Greg Ellis, Roy Williams, Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones.

It was left up to Phillips to impose a new "get tough" policy on a team that had been handled with kid gloves.

"If you don't make your goals, you need to look at things and see what you need to do," Phillips said. "Our goal wasn't to go 9-7 and have a winning season. Our goal was to make the playoffs first and then do well in the playoffs, and we didn't succeed in that area."

The changes are making management look wise. What's left for Dallas is to face the demons in Philly and then march toward a successful postseason, something that hasn't happened in more than a decade.

The game will be a litmus test to how far the Cowboys have come. Philadelphia's defense has been impressive for several weeks in a row and the offense remains a juggernaut, scoring 30 or more points in four of their first seven games, including much of the last two without standout running back Brian Westbrook (concussion).

Can Tony Romo's offense keep pace?

"I think Tony's playing well right now," Phillips said. "I think our team is playing well right now. At this point in this season, that's where we are. Three weeks ago, I might not have said that, but things change quickly in this league, and you can make change, and that's why you play the games."

"I think everybody realizes what's at stake in this game, and how crucial this one really is," Crayton said. "I'm not going to call it a 'must-win,' because it's not going to break the season, but I think it's a 'have-to-win.'"

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