In the playoff environment of a late December game at Lincoln Financial Field with first place in the NFC East on the line, the Eagles put themselves in a 21-point hole, came back, and then made critical second-half mistakes to lose the game, 38-27 to Dallas, and their grip on first place in the division.
It was a stunning loss, a heartbreaker. The Eagles were out of sorts on the way to a 21-0 hole 17 minutes into the game.
"We kept things positive," wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said, "but it was not the way we wanted to start the game."
A failure to secure the opening kickoff – it landed at the 15-yard line between returners Brad Smith and Josh Huff – gave the Cowboys possession at the Philadelphia 17-yard line and Dallas scored a touchdown five plays later.
Touchdown drives of 88 yards and 56 yards made it Dallas 21, Eagles 0 before Philadelphia came to life. In fact, late in the third quarter, after Vinny Curry sacked quarterback Tony Romo and forced a fumble that Fletcher Cox recovered and the offense turned into a touchdown, the Eagles led 24-21 – that's 24 straight points scored -- and the momentum seemed decidedly in favor of the Eagles.
And then it wasn't.
Dallas went 78 yards in 8 plays to score on a DeMarco Murray touchdown run, quarterback Mark Sanchez threw a pass that a diving Zach Ertz couldn't reel in and was eventually intercepted to end the third quarter.
Then Dallas owned the fourth quarter. The Cowboys turned that interception into a Romo-to-Dez Bryant (more on him later) touchdown pass to go ahead 35-24, and after the Eagles put three points on the board on a Cody Parkey field goal, a Brent Celek fumble led to another Dallas field goal late in the fourth quarter to make it 38-27.
In all, the Eagles turned the ball over four times – the opening kickoff, the Sanchez interception to end the third quarter, the Celek fumble and another Sanchez interception late in the fourth quarter. Those four giveaways – a problem all season – led to 17 Cowboys points. The Eagles committed 8 penalties for a loss of 95 yards and three of those penalties gave Dallas first downs. The offense took way too long to get nto any kind of tempo -- the Eagles had zero total yards of offense after one quarter of play -- and the defense could not stop Bryant or the Cowboys offense much at all. Bryant was targeted 7 times and caught 6 passes for 114 yards and three touchdowns, mostly against cornerback Bradley Fletcher until the Eagles moved Cary Williams to Bryant's side in the fourth quarter.
"I give the Cowboys credit. Tony Romo played much better than he did on Thanksgiving, which we expected. And Dez got us," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "We tried a lot of different things and it just didn't work. We didn't get off the field. We didn't have a good night."
Now the Eagles need some help to win the NFC East. They're a game behind Dallas. The Cowboys host Indianapolis on Sunday and play at Washington end the regular season. The Eagles go to Washington on Saturday and New York a week later. Losses to Seattle and Dallas, both at Lincoln Financial Field, have taken the Eagles out of the driver's seat in the NFC East.
"We're not thinking about that," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "We need to get over this game and beat Washington on Saturday and take care of what we can control. This is a disappointing game. We didn't play our best game at all and Dallas came in here and beat us."
"It's a tough game to take, but we lost the game," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "You can't put yourself in a hole like that. Then we fought back and took a lead and they went right down the field and scored a touchdown and the momentum was lost. When you have a chance to take the game, you take it. And we didn't do that."
When the Eagles overwhelmed Dallas on Thanksgiving, they owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and the result was a 33-10 victory. Dallas flexed its muscle this time. The Cowboys ran a steady diet of DeMarco Murray (31 carries, 81 yards) and the stretch play, and they moved the football around in the passing game. Tight end Jason Witten, limited to one catch in the first game between the teams, caught 7 passes for 69 yards -- five of which resulted in first downs for Dallas. Romo was more mobile and accurate than he was on Thanksgiving and he picked apart the Eagles' secondary.
"He was a lot different and we didn't get him off of his spot enough," linebacker Brandon Graham said. "He had time to throw and he beat us, spread it around and kept us off balance."
Two games remain in the regular season. There is a lot of football remaining. The Eagles have to get themselves up off the carpet in a hurry to play Washington on Saturday afternoon.
Two weeks ago the chatter was whether the Eagles could win enough down the stretch to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Now, the Eagles need a win, no matter how.
"That's how it goes in this league," Maclin said. "You have to take care of your business. That's the only thing we can focus on."