The only thing more confusing than the NFC East race is the way the Dallas Cowboys continue to stay in it.
Today, they won, 26-10, over the Philadelphia Eagles to remain in the three-team pack at the top with a 9-5 record, going into next weekend's showdown with the Washington Redskins at Texas Stadium.
But the Cowboys' success comes in strange doses. In a dismal first half, quarterback Danny White, starting for the fourth time this season, was intercepted three times and completed just five of 19 passes for 45 yards. Tony Dorsett fumbled the ball away on a hit that put him out of the game most of the second quarter with a mild concussion.
The Dallas offense, producer of one touchdown in the previous two games, was at it again. It didn't score in this half, either.
Yet, amazingly, the Cowboys led at halftime, 7-3. The Eagles, who finally dropped out of contention for good in the NFC East with a 5-8-1 record, matched the Cowboys ineptitude for ineptitude for the first 30 minutes.
In the second half, Dallas just couldn't keep up, leaving Philadelphia to its failures as a born-again Cowboys offense rolled to two touchdowns and a near-blowout in front of 66,322 grumbling fans.
Dorsett came back from his injury to gain most of the 110 yards that put him beyond 1,000 yards rushing for the seventh time in his eight-year career.
"In the second half, we just started all over again," said White, whose recovery of sorts gave him a final total of eight completions in 25 attempts for 125 yards, a touchdown, and four interceptions. "Fortunately, we had the lead and we could play conservatively. We didn't have to go out and play catch-up."
The Cowboys have their defense to thank for that. The team that gave you 10 quarterback sacks on Thanksgiving Day delivered seven today on Philadelphia's Joe Pisarcik, who was making his first start, but second virtually complete game, in place of Ron Jaworski (broken leg).
Pisarcik did not have a pleasant day. While he completed 23 of the 44 passes he threw for 190 yards and a touchdown, he yielded two interceptions and one of the sacks was a safety by Dallas tackle John Dutton.
"It wasn't Joe's fault," said Eagles Coach Marion Campbell. "You can't blame one ballplayer. We just played poorly offensively."
This was no understatement. The Eagles gained 173 total yards, well under their average of 297 per game. The most striking comparison comes in the halftime totals; the Eagles gained 117 of those yards in the first half. For the day, Dallas gained 286 -- a relative offensive powerhouse.
"We're up and down offensively," said Dallas Coach Tom Landry. "I'd love to have a machine operating smoothly, but we don't have a machine operating smoothly. But we did start to run and move the ball in the third quarter."
To set the stage for that third quarter, it's necessary to go back to a third-down pass by Pisarcik with less than seven minutes gone in the game. He was trying to hit tight end John Spagnola, who would end with 11 catches for 114 yards.
Pisarcik had Spagnola open inside Dallas free safety Dennis Thurman, who was playing wide. The pass sailed beyond Spagnola, right to Thurman, who already had started toward the ball. He ran 38 yards untouched down the sideline for a 7-0 lead. This was the same way Dallas began its last game, scoring on Michael Downs' interception return against New England.
The rest of the half was awash in mistakes, except for Paul McFadden's 23-yard field goal to bring the Eagles to within four.
One of the mistakes appeared to be more costly than just a turnover. Dorsett was forced to leave the game after his fumble on a hit early in the second quarter. Already in the grasp of Anthony Griggs, he was jarred under the chin, head on, by Ray Ellis, Griggs' teammate at Ohio State.
But Dorsett came back in the third quarter. "That was amazing," Landry said. "Normally, that doesn't clear up. He ought to be a boxer to clear up that quick."
The fog lifted over the Dallas offense soon after halftime. After Dorsett, of all people, was intercepted trying to throw a long pass to Mike Renfro, the Eagles moved from the Dallas 48 to the 39, where they faced fourth and one. Michael Haddix ran into the right side of his line, and was stopped short of the 38 by Ed Jones.
Dorsett ran four yards to the 43 on Dallas' first play, then White dropped back and passed to Ron Springs, circling out of the backfield, for what turned into a 57-yard touchdown play.
A 14-3 lead became 16-3 when Dutton sacked Pisarcik on first down from the 10. White was intercepted once more before Dallas scored again on Timmy Newsome's eight-yard run behind the block of tight end Doug Cosbie, who jammed into the left side of the line ahead of Newsome.
The 16 straight points in the third quarter were plenty, but Rafael Septien added a 32-yard field goal with 1:51 left to play after Philadelphia scored its only touchdown on a two-yard reception by Vyto Kab, a reserve tight end.