IRVING, Texas -- After playing five games against questionable quarterback competition, yesterday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles was supposed to resolve the Dallas Cowboys' big question: Just how good are the Cowboys on defense?
4 Answer: You can quick-kick against them all day.
Randall Cunningham surprised Dallas with an 80-yard punt, but the rest of the surprises were on him. Four interceptions, one fumble and four sacks gave the Cowboys a 24-13 win and, at 5-1, sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
"Have we played somebody now?" safety James Washington asked, mocking those who suggested that the team's No. 1 defensive ranking is a product of a weak schedule. "I think we stood pretty tall."
One of the league's taller quarterbacks had trouble standing. In one stretch that lasted nearly two quarters, Cunningham was 0-for-10 with three interceptions.
"He had a tough game," said Eagles coach Rich Kotite. But so did Kotite, who said he misread the chart that tells coaches when to go for two. Trailing by 11 with 5:27 to play, he gambled and lost on a two-point conversion. That put the Eagles in need of a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal just to tie.
"To be honest, I read the chart wrong, or it was wet or something," he said. "No big deal, though, because we would have had to score twice again, anyway."
And scoring that frequently against the Cowboys' defense is almost unheard of. Down 24-13, the Eagles (4-2) did recover an onside kick and drove to the 1-yard line, where they had first-and-goal with two minutes to play. If the game wasn't quite in doubt, certainly those who follow point spreads had some concerns at that stage.
But middle linebacker Robert Jones stuffed two straight running plays, one for a 6-yard loss, before Cunningham threw his fourth and final interception to Larry Brown.
That preserved the Cowboys' third straight win against division competition and gave them the top record in the NFC.
"I haven't seen the rest of the NFL," said Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, declining to answer whether he had the league's best team. "I'm just learning our conference. I think we'll get a little respect now. I thought we were going to have to play Auburn or Colorado to get some."
Yesterday's game was one-sided from the start, only not the way it finished. In the first quarter, the Cowboys' offense played clueless football. Handoffs were complicated. First downs were nonexistent. Troy Aikman was 0-for-4 with an interception. Even a punt was blocked.
"In that first quarter, a lot of things were going against us," said Aikman. "The important thing for me was not to lose my head and make sure other guys didn't lose theirs."
After John Jett's partly blocked punt traveled just 8 yards, the Eagles scored on a 32-yard pass to Herschel Walker.
But despite a 106-6 edge in first-quarter yards, the Eagles could manage no other scores. Even Cunningham's 80-yard quick kick did nothing more than serve as the prelude to an 84-yard drive in the second quarter. Emmitt Smith, who rushed for 106 yards on 26 carries, scored from the 2 with 1:49 to go in the half.
That in itself would have served as a major momentum changer, given how long the Eagles had held a 7-0 lead. But then two plays later, safety Kenny Gant stepped in front of a pass meant for Walker and intercepted at the Eagles' 34.
The Cowboys had begun having success on slant routes, and three snaps later, Aikman pumped once to bring up cornerback Eric Allen, then floated a 16-yard scoring pass to Alvin Harper for a 14-7 lead.
Darren Woodson's fourth interception of the season set up Dallas' next touchdown in the third quarter. This time Aikman hit tight end Jay Novacek on a 14-yard slant for a 14-point lead. Chris Boniol's 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter continued Dallas' dominance.
"We didn't play the first quarter, offensively, but we played it for four quarters, defensively," Switzer said.
It came against a good offense, too, regardless of what the Dallas defense made it look like.