IRVING, TEXAS — IRVING, Texas -- From a distance of 2,000 miles and through the echo of more than two years, the Philadelphia Eagles had heard rumors linking the Dallas Cowboys and improvement.
Yesterday, the rumors became truth in a 20-10 Cowboys victory that further defined the NFC East, but only scrambled the Eagles' plans.
By winning, the Cowboys improved to 7-1 for the first time since 1983, built a two-game lead over the sputtering 5-3 Eagles, kept their distance from the second-place Washington Redskins and vigorously responded to their 31-7 loss in Philadelphia four Monday nights ago.
As for the Eagles, they lost for the third time in four starts and left with what was once viewed as an impossibility: a quarterback controversy.
When the Eagles, who struggled to a 7-3 home victory over the Phoenix Cardinals last week, managed just one first-half first down yesterday, coach Rich Kotite replaced Randall Cunningham with Jim McMahon at halftime.
McMahon immediately conducted the Eagles' lone touchdown drive, but was at best adequate in his first appearance of the season. In fact, the Eagles' last real chance to win was doused when Issiac Holt intercepted McMahon's pass at the Dallas 9-yard line with 2:26 to play.
"This was quite an accomplishment for our football team," Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson said. "Every player gave everything they had today.
"We were geared up to stop Randall Cunningham today, and it sort of threw us a curve when they brought in McMahon. They made some adjustments and slowed down our blitz. But we came back after they took that lead, which is the sign of a good team."
To the Eagles, whose only recent loss to Dallas was under third-string quarterback Jeff Kemp last season, those signs were long in arriving.
Troy Aikman, who was 0-6 as a starter against Philadelphia, threw for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
Emmitt Smith, who had been victimized in the Eagles' streak of 53 regular-season games without allowing an opponent to run for 100 yards, rushed 30 times for 163.
Cunningham, who was 8-0 against Dallas as a starter, was ineffective, completing three of eight passes for 13 yards.
And the Eagles, who had won 11 of the past 12 non-strike games against Dallas, including the past five here, have a clearer image of what the rest of the NFL seemed to know: The Cowboys are back.
"We don't need to send any messages to the Eagles or the rest of the league," said Kelvin Martin, whose 22-yard touchdown reception gave Dallas a 10-7 third-quarter lead. "We just play our game and let our record speak for itself."
It took Philadelphia until 6:06 remained in the half to gain its initial first down. The Cowboys were leading 3-0, despite two missed field goals by Lin Elliott.
McMahon appeared after halftime and immediately orchestrated an eight-play, 80-yard drive.
"Rich called Randall and me into a side room at halftime and said I'd start the second half," McMahon said. "He indicated he wanted to change some things up and see if I could jump-start the offense and then bring Randall in later."
The pace of the game unlocked, Dallas answered with a six-play, 80-yard drive to take a 10-7 lead, Martin catching his scoring pass over the middle, shaking John Booty and criss-crossing into the end zone. Booty was playing in place of injured Andre Waters, whose broken ankle may keep him out for the season.
"I think it was evident by the end of the game that we were fatigued," said Eagles free safety Wes Hopkins.
McMahon and the Eagles were stopped three times inside the Dallas 3 and settled for ex-Cowboy Roger Ruzek's 18-yard field goal and a 10-10 tie. Indeed, Dallas did appear stronger later in the game.
A 58-yard drive led to Elliott's 48-yard field goal and a 13-10 Dallas edge. Then, with 7:39 to play, Daryl Johnston caught Aikman's short pass and rumbled 14 yards to score.
The largest Texas Stadium crowd since 1985 -- 65,012 -- was delighted.
"Going into the game, we felt like we could definitely dominate them," said Cowboys defensive tackle Tony Casillas. "We just lined up each man and beat him. That's the mentality we have to have. We felt like we owed them one."
The Cowboys dominated the Eagles statistically in yesterday's 20-10 victory:
..... ..... .....Dallas ..... Phila.
First downs... ..... 22 ......... 9
Yards rushing...... 175 ........ 73
Yards passing...... 214 ....... 117
Total yards........ 389 ....... 190
Avg. gain .... .... 5.6 ....... 3.8