This Sunday, the Eagles and Cowboys will battle for first place in the NFC East through seven games. That makes for high stakes, but it pales in comparison to what was on the line in the final game of the 2008 regular season. We now re-live that memorable day in Eagles history, December 28, 2008, thanks to the people who were there …
Safety Brian Dawkins: We had kind of dug ourselves a hole. We went on a nice little winning streak, if I'm not mistaken, then we lost to Washington the week before … That whole week I had an ear infection. I have a better understanding of why kids cry so much when they have an ear infection. I was in constant pain. I couldn't stand up for the most part and had to sit in quiet rooms almost the whole week. My ear was hurting so bad that any sound was magnified because of the infection. So my equilibrium was off. I was going to make myself play regardless, but I didn't know how effective I was going to be able to be.
Eagles broadcaster Merrill Reese: The night before, Saturday night, I was out to dinner with the Cowboys broadcasters, Babe Laufenberg, who does the color, and Brad Sham, who does the play-by-play. I said, "This Eagles team has just had such a tough season. I can't see anything happening." They said, "Wait, this Cowboys team finds ways to self-destruct. Don't rule out your Eagles yet." I said, "It's not going to happen."
Long-time season ticket holder Sam Becker: I remember many of my friends selling their tickets before the game because they were so disgusted with the season. In fact, I had no enthusiasm for that day and I was going to offer the tickets to other people but never got there with it. I said (to my son), "Noah, why don't you go to the game with someone else?" And he said, "I'll only go if you go." So, not having anyone else to go to the game and not wanting two tickets to go to waste … we drove down.
The Eagles, at 8-6-1, needed two of three outcomes from the 1 PM games to go their way in order to control their own destiny. They needed the Raiders, 13-point underdogs, to win in Tampa Bay and either the Texans to beat the Bears or the Giants to beat the Vikings.
Offensive tackle Jon Runyan: I remember sitting back in (head athletic trainer) Rick Burkholder's office watching the other games unfold. That was a big part of it.
Running back Correll Buckhalter: In our locker room, it was always loose, but at the same time serious. Before the game, guys were loose. We had a couple guys in the locker room who would walk around and crack jokes. When it was time to step out there on the field, that's when the seriousness kicked in.
Brian Dawkins: Our thought process was whatever happened in the other games, whether we were playing for the playoffs or not, we were going to whoop Dallas. Period. That's a rival game. We want to end on a good note as far as winning is concerned and we want to beat Dallas. Regardless of what happened in those other games, we were focused on making sure that we beat Dallas. I believe we lost to them earlier in the year on a game that we should have won, so we owed them that.
Jon Runyan: I think part of it too is because you kind of knew the scenario was not likely to fall in your favor, it was a little bit more of a relaxed state of mind. We always said at the time, if you play tight, then you're going to play slow. That wasn't the case at all. I just remember things happening that way and getting excited about it but you weren't anxious about it.
Merrill Reese: We got to the stadium and we went right to the main press room. Usually I don't spend much time there. I go to my booth, I'm quiet, I look at the field, I pick one game, one earlier game to watch on television and keep apprised of the score. But not this day. I sat there with the whole bank of screens and I said, "I'm going to watch every one of these games." It finally came down to the last game, the Tampa Bay game. Everything worked out right. I felt at that moment, there was no way that this team was going to lose that game. You could just feel the excitement in the air as that game kicked off and there was never a doubt after that.
Sam Becker: We get to the game, we're walking into the stadium, and at this point we're listening to the radios in the parking lot and we hear Chicago lost. So we get into the stadium and the corridors are packed with people watching the Tampa Bay game. We're hearing the Star Spangled Banner and we're still sitting in the corridor watching the Tampa Bay game. The Tampa Bay game ends and this huge cheer goes up reverberating through the corridors behind the stands. We're all saying, "This is a game! It means something."
Brian Dawkins: You could just feel the electricity in the stadium. The fans and the players on the field were able to see the last team, I think it was the Raiders, could see them winning the game. So the electricity was just building and building and building, and then we touched that field and it was on.
Dawkins was a free-agent-to-be, so the possibility existed that this would be his final game in an Eagles uniform.
Brian Dawkins: I didn't do my usual exuberance as far as on my entrance. I came out, did a little quick dance, and I blew kisses to the crowd, because I didn't know if that would be my last time to be able to do that. That's why I blew kisses to the crowd and it just so happened that it turned out that was my last (home) game as an Eagle.
Sam Becker: We walk out and the stands are half full with Cowboys fans. A huge number of these obnoxious Cowboys fans. And there's nothing I hate more in sports than to go to my stadium and to see it taken over by another team. So whenever they're cheering, we're booing … You have always had these fraudulent Cowboys fans in Philadelphia, people who decided that for whatever reason they didn't want to be Eagles fans. That just drives you nuts.
The Eagles and Cowboys exchanged first-quarter field goals to make the score 3-3 after one period. On the second play of the second quarter, Donovan McNabb found Correll Buckhalter for a 59-yard catch and run. McNabb would score a touchdown on a 1-yard sneak three plays later.
Brian Dawkins: One of the things that stands out was Donovan's play to Buckhalter and that huge gain to get the energy in our favor.
Correll Buckhalter: The play was designed for me to chip one of the two defensive ends. At that time, DeMarcus Ware, I can't remember who the other defensive end was, they present problems to the tackles. So we had a play designed for that, to chip (Ware), wait about a count and then to leak out. Usually when you do that, the guy that's covering you thinks you're staying in to block. So I was able to leak out like the play was designed, Donovan found me and I did the rest … but I kind of ran out of gas there at the end … (Head coach Andy Reid) teased me, he told me I should have scored.
Shortly thereafter, Buckhalter would score on a 4-yard swing pass to make the score 17-3. Tony Romo was then intercepted by Sheldon Brown, which led to a 1-yard touchdown catch by Brent Celek. On the ensuing kickoff, Quintin Demps would force a Cowboys fumble, which David Akers converted into a field goal to make the score 27-3 at halftime.
Correll Buckhalter: I just had a free release and I just went quick to the flat, nobody covered me and Donovan threw it to me right away.
Brent Celek: My touchdown was a corner (route). It was sweet, I was pumped. Everyone was going nuts. That was one of my favorite games ever playing in, probably second to (the Miracle at the New Meadowlands).
Brian Dawkins: I just know that when Tony threw a pick to Sheldon Brown, you could kind of see the frustration that they were not on the same page. He threw expecting the receiver to do one thing, the receiver did something completely different, I forgot who it was. You could see the frustration mounting, and then on top of that, they fumble it, we (kick a field goal). One of the things that you could notice was that when we ran into the locker room at halftime, we sprinted into the locker room. You'd just see guys running with a purpose to the locker room, and then you look at Dallas and all of them are walking to the locker room. So that tells you that they kind of sensed what was going on.
Sam Becker: My recollection is that in the second quarter we just killed them. Absolutely killed them.
Jon Runyan: The rivalry's always been huge and you also look at the changes even in that nine years I was with Philadelphia, how many organizational changes the Cowboys went through. They were still looking for that right blend of players and coaches and all that kind of stuff. That was an awesome rivalry and it was great that we were on the consistent side of it, consistently taking it to them.
The third quarter brought more of the same for the Eagles, as Dawkins forced two fumbles that would be returned for long touchdowns.
Brian Dawkins: (The ear infection) was still hurting me. It wasn't as bad obviously, I was able to play, but it was hurting me. My energies weren't quite where they normally would be. I guess it was louder to me and maybe it seemed like it was going in slow motion to me because my head was hurting. The ear infection had things kind of muffled but at the same time, it was like a pin piercing at my eardrum. It wasn't a fun game as far as that was concerned.
Wide receiver Jason Avant: You know what's so powerful is that me and Dawkins were the only two who didn't pack our bags for the upcoming week. Everybody was packing their bags because we were out of the playoffs and everything. Me and Dawkins were the only two who didn't pack our bags. Actually my roommate, Lorenzo Booker, he was like, that night before the game, "Man, it was just a great time being with you." I said, "Look, man, we're going to be in the playoffs together. We'll have a couple more days together." He was like, "No, you're lying man." I remember all of that.
Brian Dawkins: I remember those fumbles that I forced. One of them on (Tony) Romo. I know Tony likes to hold the football. Same thing to this day. If you look at him to this day, he does the same thing. Some of the things that make you smile or make you cry. He holds the ball a lot because he makes big plays from it, but I know as a blitzer, because he holds the ball so long, I can get after him. I can get to him. I was able to force a fumble and I think it was Clemons who scored on the first one.
Jon Dorenbos: I'll never forget Chris Clemons picked up a fumble and returned it for (73 yards) and I'll never forget how out of breath he was in the end zone. He was just dying.
Brian Dawkins: The second was on (Marion) Barber. I remember running to him and I remember him being a physical running back. So on that play I was trying to time his stiff-arm, and I knew if he was going to try to stiff-arm me and as I got closer to him, he didn't stiff-arm me. So I jumped, grabbed him with my right arm and tried to punch the ball with my left arm. The ball just happened to stay right in bounds and Hanson picked it up, took that thing for another (touchdown).
Sam Becker: (Dawkins) was fabulous that game. He took the game over.
Jason Avant: It was just one of those days … that game was like if God could choose sides, he was with the Eagles that day … Everything went right. Busted plays went for touchdowns, fumbles on the sideline stayed in. There were just a whole bunch of crazy things that went our way that day.
Sam Becker: At halftime, we were about as happy as we could be. And we came back for the third quarter and half the Cowboys fans left. They didn't even come back for the second half. And then the third quarter we were still rolling and the rest of the (Cowboys) fans left. It was like a festival the rest of the game. Whoever showed up was as happy as could be because such an improbable result had happened and they had played such a great game and broken Tony Romo.
*Both teams would add one more field goal, creating the unforgettable 44-6 margin. All told, the Eagles scored 41 consecutive points in the span of less than two quarters. *
Long snapper Jon Dorenbos: The fans were going crazy. Any time you have a huge rival like that and you beat them 44-6. If I remember right, Romo kind of got out of his groove. We hit him a couple times. Dawkins forced both those fumbles. Our fans love seeing that. They love seeing us play well and I think our fans not only like seeing us play well but I think they like seeing Dallas not play well.
Merrill Reese: It wasn't one play. It was just that whole snowballing effect. Romo was terrible that day. The Eagles defense made great play after great play after great play. They had their way. They did anything they wanted.
Offensive tackle Tra Thomas: I don't remember games very well. I just remember DeMarcus Ware, he needed like (three) sacks to beat the sack record and I shut him down. None of that.
Jon Runyan: I think when you look back on all that, it has to do with preparation and how coach Reid really was. There's only one thing you can really control around here, that's yourself, and you can't worry about all this other stuff. No matter what happens, we have to go out and win this game. It comes down to execution. Obviously, when you put 44 up on somebody like that, that's execution while they're sitting there hoping someone else wins so they don't have to worry about it. All that groundwork's laid before you get to the stadium that day because it's really about the attitude you bring to the stadium.
Brian Dawkins: It was really a game that I will never forget because of that, because of how loud it was, because of the electricity. Things were moving in slow motion. It reminds me sometimes if you watch a documentary and the big plays that happen in a documentary, they usually put them in slow motion to music. That's kind of how it was in the game. When you saw the big plays happen, it was kind of happening in slow motion and all that was missing was the mood music, the electricity music.
Corell Buckhalter: I just looked at (the game, in which I led the team in rushing and receiving with 122 yards of total offense) as, I have a story. There might be another young kid out there who's going through something similar, he keeps getting hurt and hurt and he feels like he wants to give up. But he doesn't. Just being blessed by the lord, I always tried to lead by example. You always work hard and shoot for the stars.
Merrill Reese: In fact, I said on the air, and Andy Bloom, who's the operations manager for CBS Radio, he still remembers me saying – I gave the score, and it was so one-sided that I felt compelled to say, "I'm not drunk. This is the actual score."
Sam Becker: It was totally unexpected. It was just joyous. You rarely have that kind of joy going to a football game. You can have good things happen, you can have teams compete and meet your expectations, guys have great plays. But the sheer joy of going and getting something that unexpected … At the end of the day, it was just a joy to watch good football and to watch guys do what they're supposed to do. That's what I think about that game. The Eagles played a good team and they beat them and they played well. And it was the hated Cowboys.
Radio personality Rhea Hughes:At the beginning of the day, you thought it was going to be a terrible day and it turned into an amazing day. Everything fell into place which never happens for a Philadelphia fan. It was a nice little extra Christmas present.
Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens (following the game): We came in here with an opportunity, with our destiny in our own hands and we kind of just stunk it up.
Brian Dawkins: It wasn't even a close – it wasn't even a question who was going to win that ballgame as it continued to unfold. It wasn't even a question. The energy, we played faster, we played with more emotion and we were a step ahead. Everything that you would want in a big game to happen, happened in that game.