'I HOPE YOU ALL had the Philadelphia Eagles as your fantasy team," Asante Samuel said. On this attention-grabbing night, let us begin there.

We all know what the Eagles were in the first six games of the season: inconsistent, sloppy with the football, terrible tackling, schematically challenged, unable to live up to the hype. We all know the result of their early failures: personnel being shuffled on defense, the coach's tenure being questioned, fans hanging signs outside of the practice facility, players rallying against the criticism, Samuel criticizing the people playing fantasy football in the front office.

What was supposed to be a dream was turning into a loud nightmare instead. A very talented roster was being labeled as dysfunctional.

Now, this:

Eagles 34, Cowboys 7.

Meaning, what?

"That, I guess, the Eagles are back," Samuel said. "The Eagles are back and we're ready to play Eagle football. We did that on prime time so everybody could see. Hopefully, we can use this as a motivation factor and keep going."

Finally, belatedly, the Eagles team that we all expected has shown itself. The team that was praised too early and also buried too early - just impossible to figure in another confounding NFL season - arrived last night against the Cowboys lugging a 2-4 record and all of the imperatives such numbers suggest. They showed up for a game in a stadium filled with people who were wondering if they would ever see the team that they expected/anticipated/salivated over with each new free-agent signing in August.

And what they did was play what they all knew was their best game of the season, a game that they should be able to play more than once every 7 weeks. Afterward, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said, "We're always confident. We think if we're hitting on every cylinder, we think that we're one of the best teams out there. I think, tonight, we definitely showed that. But we have to continue this. We have to be consistent."

It was a night when Chas Henry did not punt until the middle of the fourth quarter.

It was a night when the Cowboys' vaunted run defense was mutilated by Shady McCoy (30 carries, 185 yards and two touchdowns).

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was the coach who got all of the ink during the week, but it was Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg who ended up being the evening's unquestioned master. And Michael Vick (21-for-28 for 279 yards and two touchdowns) was as sharp as we have seen him.

All of that, combined with a pass rush that set an early, terroristic tone, turned an expected drama into a farce. It also undoubtedly caught the attention of skeptics who have tut-tutted for weeks now about how the Eagles assembled talent in the offseason but did not assemble a team, and about how there was no way so much roster turnover, combined with so much turnover on the coaching staff, could ever have resulted in the kind of expectations that the Eagles carried into Opening Day.

"Like I've been saying from the beginning: new d-coordinator, new faces on defense, new system," Samuel said. "Everybody's just learning everything and jelling together. It seems like it's going pretty well."

Up until now, all of the conversation has been just that: conversation - the Dream Team stuff, the snap-back against the Dream Team stuff, all of it. What we are left with is a team struggling to make up an early deficit, yes, but also a team with a lot of ability that is continuing to blossom. It has been good all year on offense, really, except for turnovers. It started coming together defensively 2 1/2 games ago, during the loss at Buffalo.

This is the result.

The question: How much of it can the Eagles sustain?

"You can't just say everything is fixed, like that," Samuel warned, in a cautious moment. "We just had one good game. What do we have, nine more left? We've got a lot of football left. We'll see different offenses, different teams. It's definitely going to be a challenge, week in and week out."

The NFC East has been reduced to this: The Giants are 5-2 and the Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins are all 3-4. Watching the events of the day - the Giants surviving at home against the winless Dolphins, the Redskins getting shut out by the Bills, the Cowboys getting obliterated by the Eagles - it is not hard to envision this: four teams, with four knives, locked in a room with a hearty "good luck" and the expectation that only one of them will emerge.

But which?

The Eagles, for the first time in a while, looked like a team with a chance to do just that. If this did not get the attention of the rest of the league, nothing will. What the Eagles did in this game, more than anything, is demonstrate to the world how good they can be.

Yes, they're back. The next few weeks will tell us if they showed up in time.

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