ARLINGTON, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys left the field after their 33-13 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, they did not look particularly excited. They were mostly quiet as they entered their locker room, not all that different in demeanor from when they narrowly lost to the Eagles just a few weeks ago. They didn't even do anything special to recognize that Mike McCarthy coached a nearly unstoppable offense just five days after he had to have surgery for acute appendicitis.
But owner Jerry Jones has an appreciation for drama and big moments and victories that can stamp a team as contenders. This was one of those, and so Jones, never one to shy from the grandiose, reached into his knowledge of medieval Spanish history for the story of El Cid, the national hero who, legend has it, after being mortally wounded, was fitted with his armor and strapped to his horse to lead his troops against Valencia's besiegers.
"Mike was strapped on a horse going down that beach," Jones said of his coach.
You can forgive Jones his giddiness after what he said was the most significant victory of the McCarthy era. This was the legitimizing victory of Dallas' season. Until Sunday night, the Cowboys had not beaten one of the NFL's elite teams -- they got smashed by the 49ers in October and lost by an inch here and there to the Eagles in November -- or even defeated one that currently has a winning record. And as a result, the Cowboys entered December with the age-old question still hanging over them: Could they win the biggest games?
We still don't really have the only answer that matters in Dallas: Can the Cowboys play like this in the postseason? But we do know their defense is good enough to hold one of the league's top scoring offenses to just two field goals and force three turnovers, their offense is stoppable only by its own mistakes (a strip-sack of Dak Prescott that was returned by Jalen Carter for a touchdown threatened to swing the momentum early in the third quarter) and their rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey is good enough to bail them out from at least 60 yards even if a drive stalls. This win put the Cowboys, at least for now, atop the NFC East, although they have a more difficult schedule in the final month than the Eagles do.
Jones has never been shy about saying that his teams are good enough to win Super Bowls, and he had already said that this one could win it all after it beat up on the Washington Commanders on Thanksgiving. But that was the Commanders. And this was a team that the Cowboys will have to supplant to win the NFC East.
"This game is additive," he said. "No question that everybody feels better about their ability to compete than we did three hours ago because of the nature of opponent. I saw a great effort. This team knows it can compete, but we're going to have to do it in Buffalo. They are formidable. We'll have to do it in Miami. In Washington."
The Cowboys established control quickly, with an aggressive game plan that sliced through an Eagles defense that, for the second week in a row, looked weary from what has been a brutal stretch of schedule. The Cowboys scored on all four of their drives in the first half and were 6 of 8 on third down. That forced the Eagles to again play from behind, their pattern this season, but for the second straight week, they came up against an opponent that was good enough to prevent a comeback.
Before the game, Jones said, he told Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie that he hoped the teams would play again, meaning he hoped they would face each other in the playoffs. Jones, of course, would love for that game to be in Dallas, which would mean that they had won the NFC East. But Jones is also convinced that, as dominant as the Cowboys are at home, they are also equipped to win on the road. They narrowly lost to the Eagles in Philadelphia and they have not lost since. The next few weeks -- with back-to-back road games at Buffalo and Miami -- will be telling and they may go a long way to quieting some of the skepticism that will linger around the Cowboys until another trophy is hoisted.
"I certainly have questions," Jones said. "I felt we're capable of winning the games. I thought we were capable of beating the 49ers when we went out there. We didn't. But I don't count the proverbial chickens against any team in the NFL."
Some of Jones' few regrets as an owner center around his 2007 team, when the Cowboys seemed poised to win a Super Bowl with Tony Romo. They did not and Romo never won one. Jones was especially proud of that team, but it pains him that Romo does not have a Super Bowl to his name. Now, Jones said Sunday, he thinks Prescott, who left the field to chants of "M-V-P," is "qualified in every way to have a Super Bowl in his career." He lauded how Prescott has embraced the adjustments that have been needed in the offense this season, and how he and the rest of the offense ground through the early bumps during the training.
Jones said he feels as good about this team as he has at any point this season, although he conceded he felt pretty good after the Cowboys destroyed the Giants in the season opener. "Visions of sugarplums," he said. That came crashing down a few weeks later against the 49ers.
This year could be different than 2007, though. That team had a home game in the Divisional Round. And they lost to the wild card, the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl that Jones was sure was in his team's reach. This year's team might have to replicate the Giants' path as a wild card. But Jones thinks a win like Sunday's, against a vaunted opponent and under such odd circumstances, can carry the Cowboys forward. There are four games to go, but the Cowboys finally made their statement. And they made it clearly.
"This," Jones said, "was a little bigger than life."