PHILADELPHIA -- Revenge was never sweeter, or retribution more exacting, than it was for the upstart Dallas Cowboys yesterday.
Buried under a fierce Philadelphia pass rush three months ago, the Cowboys achieved their personal payback with a stunning 25-13 victory over the Eagles at Veterans Stadium that settled the score on a number of counts.
Thanks to Detroit's 21-17 verdict over Green Bay, the win secured Dallas' first playoff berth since 1985. It also represented coach Jimmy Johnson's first triumph over the Eagles in six tries. To top it off, the loss all but extinguished Philadelphia's fading postseason hopes.
It was so big, so sweet, so perfect, that Johnson called it the biggest win of his three Cowboys seasons. This proclamation comes just three weeks after Dallas toppled the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium.
"But we've got bigger wins coming," Johnson said, peering down the playoff road.
Indeed, three years after Johnson made his NFL debut with a 1-15 debacle, the Cowboys -- 10-5 and on a four-game winning streak -- should not be viewed as some kind of wild-card gate-crasher.
"We all thought we would be a playoff team back in the fall," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "But I didn't think we'd do it this way, by winning big games on the road. After the last two or three weeks, I thought if we got out alive today that we'd go to another level."
Mindful of a dreary 24-0 loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 24, the Cowboys turned the tables in the most dramatic of ways:
* An offensive line that had been shredded for 11 sacks in that game gave up one this time around. "The offensive line made a commitment early in the week to do good things," Johnson said. "I told them I did not want negative plays -- no turnovers, no big sacks."
* One of the NFL's weakest pass rushes -- the Cowboys had 17 sacks coming in -- swarmed over mobile Eagles quarterback Jeff Kemp for seven, including 2 1/2 by defensive end Jimmie Jones. "All this week, people were talking about the Eagles defense doing this and that," Jones said. "And they overlooked our defense. The only time people respect us is when we have a big game like this."
Kemp was 18-for-37 for 156 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. "They had some good coverage some of the time and other times it was just a real quick rush," he said of the pressure. "It left us facing third-and-long all the time."
* Quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who was an insurance policy until Troy Aikman sprained a knee in Washington, won his third straight start despite what may have been his worst half of football as a pro. With gusting, 23-mph winds at his back, Beuerlein was 0-for-10 in the first quarter. At the half, he was 2-for-17 for 17 yards.
But in the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys needed it most, Beuerlein took them on an 80-yard, seven-play touchdown drive. The Cowboys had gone in front, 15-10, on a scintillating 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kelvin Martin and the Eagles countered with a 47-yard Roger Ruzek field goal to make it 15-13. Throwing into the wind, Beuerlein hit tight end Jay Novacek for 32 yards, Michael Irvin for 36, and then, on third-and-goal, Irvin again for a crucial, 4-yard touchdown and a 22-13 lead.
"On the whole, it was one of the worst games I've played as a quarterback," Beuerlein said after completing nine of 31 passes for 145 yards.
"Two-for-17 . . . I was off, but a lot I was throwing the ball away because nobody was open. What you've got to do against these guys is throw the ball away, not give sacks."
And of his perseverance, Beuerlein said, "If you're going to be successful at this level, you've got to be able to shake that off."
In four games since Aikman went down, Beuerlein has thrown for four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Cowboys trailed, 10-5, at halftime and had just 56 yards in offense. In the second half, they generated 154 yards of offense and took the game to the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
"The guys should be commended for executing the game plan," Johnson said. "We were playing a great defensive team. We had to play a field-position game, avoid bad plays on offense, win it with the kicking game and on top of that, it was time for our defense to stand up and be counted."
Retribution went all the way down to 332-pound right tackle Nate Newton, who became the subject of some Eagles locker room wagering last week. Defensive tackle Jerome Brown reportedly bet defensive end Reggie White $150 that White couldn't "throw" Newton during the game.
White wound up with the only Eagles sack and, according to Newton, won the bet. But Newton got in the last word: "I said to Reggie, 'Why'd you do me like that?' He said it was something Jerome brought up. I said, 'Thanks for tossing me into the playoffs.' "
How the playoffs work
Three wild-card teams from each conference and the division champion with the third-best record in each conference will play in the first round of the playoffs on the weekend of Dec. 28-29.
The division champion will play host to the wild-card team with the third-best record. the wild-card team with the best record will play host to the wild-card team with the second-best record. There are no restrictions on intra-division games.
The next weekend, the 2 division champions that had byes will play host to the winners of the wild-card games. The division champion with the best record in each conference will play the wild-card survivor with poorer record. There are no restrictions on intra-division games.