PHILADELPHIA -- How far have the Dallas Cowboys come in their comeback campaign?
Far enough that with one week left in the regular season, they still have a presence in the playoff plot.
Far enough that with little or no provocation, they still can raise the hackles on Buddy Ryan's neck.
Far enough that when they rolled into Veterans Stadium, they were talking trash and predicting victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
But, in final analysis, not far enough.
When push came to shove in the NFL rendition of the Hatfields and McCoys, the Eagles claimed a clumsy 17-3 victory in the rain yesterday.
Afterward, Cowboys linebacker Jesse Solomon, who had openly predicted a Dallas win, was publicly scolded by Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham. "Predict a victory coming into Philadelphia? That's ridiculous," Cunningham snorted.
So, it seems, is the rivalry that has been reduced to the basest of terms. The contemptuous Cowboys came to rumble with the bawdy Birds. Toward that end, they succeeded. Eagles tackle Ron Heller called it one of the dirtiest games he's ever been involved with, and the six-year veteran has a celebrated reputation in such matters.
"Defensive backs were coming up and telling me they were going to take my knees out," Heller said. "I don't even know their names, and they're telling me they're going to end my career."
Cowboys linebacker Eugene Lockhart conceded there was "a lot of unnecessary stuff . . . We did some of it ourselves. But we don't play scared."
A year ago, this was the Bounty Bowl, so named because Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson accused Eagles coach Ryan of posting a bounty on his place-kicker. This year it was the Hostility Bowl. The winner cracked jokes and the loser cleared out of town -- fast.
Asked if he was glad the hype was over, Ryan chortled, "I love the hype. I just don't know what we're going to do with all those Bounty T-shirts. Send them back to Dallas with Jimmy, I guess."
Johnson was steaming after his quarterback, Troy Aikman, and a four-game win streak were rubbed out in short order. Aikman lasted five snaps before a blind-side hit by defensive end Clyde Simmons separated his right shoulder and probably ended his season. That put the Cowboys' offense in the hands of Babe Laufenberg, a veteran of the waiver wire. Babe's offense (13-for-36 with four interceptions) was one of diminishing returns.
Still, it wasn't the loss of Aikman that infuriated Johnson as much as it was the smell of another instant replay fiasco.
The Eagles were protecting a 10-3 lead late in the first half when Cunningham (16-for-28 for 144 yards) seemingly tried to pull back a pass and wound up throwing it into the ground at his feet. Officials on the field called the play a fumble, with Dallas safety Bill Bates recovering on the Eagles' 10.
But replay official Chuck Heberling overruled the play and called an incomplete pass.
"On that specific play, it's a passing situation," Heberling said. "And the determination of whether that's a pass or a fumble depends on the motion of that quarterback's arm. This [moving his right arm forward] is a passing motion all the way and [Cunningham] lost the ball as part of the passing motion. Therefore it has to be an incomplete pass and cannot be a fumble."
Balder--, said Johnson.
"That was no pump fake," he said. "That was a fumble. The replay official blew it. The referee said it was a fumble, but it was up to the replay official and he blew it."
Whereupon Johnson stalked away.
"He tried to pull it down," Bates said. "No question it was a blown call . . . The guy knew what [Cunningham] was trying to do. The ref said on the field he was trying to pull the ball down, but they blew it upstairs."
Heberling insisted intent did not matter, only arm motion.
Next witness, Randall Cunningham: "I was about to hit Keith Byars, but at the last second I saw a [defender] sitting there and I threw it down. The ball slipped out of my hand. It seemed like I threw it behind me."
Whether the Cowboys could have scored from the 10 is problematic. Needing a victory next week against Atlanta or a New Orleans loss to the Los Angeles Rams to gain the NFC's last wild-card berth, the 7-8 Cowboys will have to conjure up some kind of offense. Aikman, with a third-degree tear of the ligament in his right shoulder, will not be available.
The Eagles, on the other hand, need only to beat the Phoenix Cardinals in Arizona next week to gain home-field advantage for a first-round playoff game with the Washington Redskins. The Redskins' stunning 35-28 loss in Indianapolis Saturday night set the table for the 9-6 Eagles.
They did not play particularly well against Dallas, but touchdowns by Calvin Williams, on an 18-yard halfback pass from Byars, and cornerback Eric Allen, on a 35-yard interception return, allowed them to pass the test.
It was the Eagles' seventh straight victory over the Cowboys in a rivalry that promises only to get more intense, if not more dirty.
In the aftermath, there were more promises.
"As long as this unit is here, as long as this coaching staff is here, the Cowboys will never beat us," said Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner. "They've been running their mouths for three years and they haven't beat us yet."