Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman (8) trudges off the field after fumbling in the final minutes of the 18-16 loss to the Cowboys. (Toni L. Sandys/The WASHINGTON POST)

One game doesn’t change what the Washington Redskins have become. A loss on the road against a formidable foe won’t alter their new reality.

The Redskins are becoming an improved football team. They proved it again Monday night despite losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 18-16, at Cowboys Stadium.

Although the Redskins failed to close the deal against their NFC East rival, they showed they could be a major factor in the race for the NFC East division title, which is completely up for grabs.

The Redskins are right in the mix with Dallas, Philadelphia and the New York Giants. And, really, before the season, who would have thought such a thing was even possible?

“We know we’re a good team, but you still have to finish,” said tight end Fred Davis, who had one catch for 23 yards against the Cowboys. “The defense did their job. I feel like we let them down scoring only one [touchdown].

“We know we can play better than that. We know where we’re trying to get to as a team. Man, this wasn’t it tonight.”

Despite surrendering the game in the final minutes, the Redskins took another positive step in a process that has finally injected a sense of optimism among their fans. They’re getting closer. That much is apparent.

Dallas feels similarly. Offensively, the Cowboys could be second to none in the NFC if quarterback Tony Romo regularly displays the kind of mental toughness he did with Dallas trailing late in the fourth quarter and needing him to deliver.

Facing an all-out blitz on third and 21, Romo connected with wide receiver Dez Bryant for a 30-yard gain. Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall was called for facemask penalty, adding another 15 yards to the play and putting Dallas in position to win it.

“I don’t know who called it [the blitz]. But we gotta play what’s called and we . . . sure tried,” Hall said. “We’re not looking for moral victories. We came here to win and we didn’t. That’s all that matters.”

Dallas placekicker Dan Bailey made his sixth field goal of the game from 40 yards to complete the comeback.

“It hurts, man,” said Redskins strong safety LaRon Landry, who played for the first time since Nov. 15 last season. “It hurts we lost. But you’ve got to finish.”

Obviously, a 17-week race won’t be decided in Week 3 of the season. Plenty may go wrong. But in keeping with the Redskins’ optimism at the outset, let’s view the glass as half full.

Even a few games are enough to provide proof. The small sampling is a good indicator. Finally following a team-building philosophy, the Redskins are better off, and the Eagles have not been as unstoppable as expected. Not even close.

After their shopping spree, the Eagles were the popular pick. Not only to win the division but, for many, to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Nnamdi Asomugha. Cullen Jenkins. Vince Young. Ronnie Brown. The Eagles went the high-profile route, adding proven veterans to the Michael Vick-led squad.

The newcomers transformed the Eagles into a “Dream Team,” or so the thinking went. Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid had considerable talent with which to work. On paper, Philadelphia seemed unstoppable.

On the field to this point, however, not so much.

Losers of two in a row, the Eagles are 1-2. They’re last in the NFC East. Like last season, Philadelphia has struggled in pass protection, and Vick has suffered. Defensively, the Eagles haven’t made enough timely plays. While it hasn’t been a nightmare scenario yet for Philadelphia, it’s definitely not a dreamy situation either.

Meanwhile, the Redskins have benefited from their less-glitzy approach. By now, everyone knows Coach Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen persuaded owner Daniel M. Snyder to follow their lead.

The process resulted in Washington getting the right parts for its 3-4 defense. On offense, the backfield and receiving corps were upgraded through the draft and free agency. There wasn’t a lot of flash. Just substance.

Washington and Philadelphia switched roles. The Redskins used to always win the big offseason bidding wars, then flop on the field.

There were positive initial signs last season, Shanahan’s first. Ultimately, the Redskins faded fast, went 6-10 and landed at the bottom of the division for the fourth time in five seasons.

The difference, in Shanahan’s second season, is team unity. The Redskins are improving their competitiveness through togetherness. They have more playmakers on offense. They have improved their defense.

There are many choices when it comes to identifying what the Redskins are doing right these days. But the bottom line is they now have what it takes to be competitive.

A division title seems like an attainable goal, even with Monday night’s tough to take loss. The Redskins aren’t a Dream Team. But they’re becoming a good one.