The Cowboys carried an unbeaten record and a quiet confidence into today's game at Veterans Stadium.
They left beaten, bewildered and concerned over the health of wide receiver Michael Irvin.
Philadelphia's improbable 13-10 victory on a wet, dreary afternoon derailed what had been the Cowboys' best start in four years. The win was the fourth in the past 24 games for this frustrated franchise.
Irvin was taken to the Thomas Jefferson University Spine Trauma Center, where tests revealed he had swelling of his spinal cord. He was held overnight for observation and is expected to return to Dallas on Monday.
Irvin was hurt after catching an eight-yard pass in the first quarter. Although the play looked routine, Irvin slammed the top of his helmet into the artificial surface as he tried to avoid a tackler.
As Irvin lay motionless on the turf for nearly 20 minutes, trainers from both staffs attended to him. During the delay, a group of his teammates held hands and prayed while many Eagles fans cheered derisively for several minutes.
"He is doing well and has some feeling and more power back," said Cowboys team doctor Robert Vandermeer. "The swelling should subside in time, and he should be fine."
The Eagles' game-winning play came with 1 minute 7 seconds remaining, on a route they call "The Dagger." Beleaguered quarterback Doug Pederson found wide receiver Charles Johnson alone over the middle for a 28-yard touchdown pass--the Eagles' first offensive touchdown in 19 quarters. Afterward, the Cowboys were left to lament the fact they didn't put Philadelphia away when they had the chance.
And those chances were abundant in the first three quarters.
"Good teams would go out there and do it," running back Emmitt Smith said. "Close the deal early.
"We've got a ways to go as a ballclub."
The loss was sobering. But its emotional impact didn't compare to the sight of Irvin being taken off on a stretcher while a portion of the crowd of 66,669 cheered.
Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders held hands with teammates and conducted a prayer circle on the field. Smith, who lay motionless at Soldier Field three years ago after landing on his head, was one of several players who talked to Irvin during those tense moments.
"All your deepest fears start to come to mind because you're lying on the turf and you can't move," Smith said.
The swelling occurred at the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae, three vertebrae down from the base of the skull, Vandermeer said. Additional tests revealed that Irvin has a small herniated disk at the C-6 and C-7 vertebrae that Vandermeer said was probably an old injury and not related to today's injury.
Irvin will miss the Cowboys' next game, Sunday against the New York Giants, said Vandermeer, who added that he is not sure when the 33-year-old wide receiver will return to the lineup.
"I don't think it will be career-ending," Vandermeer said, "but you have to evaluate it and see how he comes along."
The Cowboys overcame Irvin's frightening injury, the loss of center Mark Stepnoski with a lower-back contusion and turnovers to take a 10-0 lead into the final period. But a sporadic offense and poor special teams play increased the burden on the defense.
The result: The Eagles scored 13 points in the final 12 minutes and picked up their first offensive touchdown since the first quarter of the season opener.
"The game was ours," Cowboys defensive tackle Chad Hennings said. "It was ours to win or lose."