We saw it against Chicago from the very start. The Eagles defense played at a different speed, a full notch faster than the Bears offense, and by the time linebacker Trent Cole came crashing down on quarterback Jay Cutler (on the third snap from scrimmage), the battle was decidedly in the favor of the Eagles, who went on to shut down Chicago en route to a 54-11 victory on Sunday night.
It was something missing from the previous game, the loss in Minnesota. The Eagles played with great gusto against the Bears as the defense dominated.
More than anything else, a repeat performance is required against Dallas this week. The emotional tenor of the defense is what will set the tone for this game.
"There's a lot on the line, so everybody is going to be feeling it," said Cole, who went on to record three quarterback sacks in the victory over Chicago, giving him eight for the season. "We're going to get after it."
They're going to need to have that kind of controlled rage and aggressiveness against a Dallas offense that, Tony Romo at quarterback or not, has a lot of dynamic pieces. The Cowboys are ranked third in the NFL in points scored for a reason. They have a 1,000-yard rusher in back DeMarco Murray, who is powerful enough to take it up between the tackles and fast enough to the edge to gash a team on the outside. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is among the handful of top, top, top players at his position in the NFL, and his combination of size and speed make him almost impossible to cover one on one. The remaining group of receivers is deep and talented, and tight end Jason Witten is still making big plays as he continues along in his Hall of Fame career.
Making it work is an offensive line that has bounced back after some early injury troubles and is now clicking for the Cowboys.
Yes, the Eagles defense -- which played so well in the October 20 game that Dallas won, 17-3 -- has its work cut out on Sunday night. The good thing is, the players know it.
"You just have to turn on the games they've played and watch all of the playmakers they have," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "Look at the way they drove the field against Washington in the fourth quarter. They have so many weapons. You can't concentrate on just one guy."
When the Eagles played Minnesota two weeks ago and the game started and the defense looked across the line of scrimmage and there was no Adrian Peterson at running back, and there were new players at tight end and at right guard, the players didn't respond the way the coaches needed. There wasn't a "fire." The Eagles were back on their collective heels in that game, and the Vikings were almost unstoppable offensively, despite the personnel challenges.
The Eagles said after that game that they learned their lesson. They were humbled. They were embarrassed. And then they went out and played at a different tempo against Chicago, one that they must match on Sunday night.
"I think we've learned a pretty valuable lesson against Minnesota, and it's fresh in our mind," said defensive coordinator Bill Davis. "I don't think that we took them lightly at all. But we know we have to step up. No matter who plays. It has to be at our absolute peak.
"Those are things (Dallas' quarterback situation) out of our control. We can control the emotion and the work that we do today and the preparation, and what we bring to the field Sunday night. Just don't worry about what we can't control."
The expectation is that the Eagles will see a lot of Murray, who averages 5.4 yards per carry. The good news is that the defense is allowing a stingy 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, and that the youth and energy up front, combined with an aggressive corps of linebackers and an "all-to-the-ball" defensive approach has aided the cause against the running game.
Davis wants his defense to be aggressive, and also to not allow the big play down the field in the passing game. His schemes have been outstanding and the Eagles have permitted 21 points or less in 10 of the last 11 games.
The biggest moment remains, though. A division title and playoff berth is on the line on Sunday night in Texas.
"These are the games you play for," said cornerback Bradley Fletcher. "We've worked all season to get to this point, so we have to go out there and have fun and let it all hang out. It's going to be exciting."