Seventeen days earlier they were the secondary that stopped Tony Romo's touchdown streak at 38 games, held Dez Bryant in check, and also offered enough run support to keep DeMarco Murray under 100 yards for just the second time this season.

It was more than just a step forward for the oft-maligned men in the Eagles defensive backfield; it was a giant leap that lifted the Eagles into first place in the NFC East with an unlikely Thanksgiving Day rout of the Dallas Cowboys down in Texas.

Starting cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher blanketed Bryant. Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin had a momentum-shifting strip of wide receiver Cole Beasley that safety Nate Allen recovered with a tightrope act along the sideline.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, the man who calls the secondary signals for the Eagles, was enthused by what he had seen. In fact, he was convinced the defense had discovered a winning formula.

He was wrong and now, after a 38-27 loss Sunday night in their rematch with Romo, Bryant, and the Cowboys, the Eagles are in second place and in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs.

"The pass game got us," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "We gave up too many big plays. In the first half, third downs were awful. We had some penalties we didn't need that hurt us, and they had a better night than we did."

The anguish of it all could be seen in the eyes of the two starting cornerbacks. Fletcher's eyes were teary as he talked about being burned three times by Bryant for touchdowns. Williams sat at his locker in full uniform staring at the floor for a long time before retreating to the shower.

"I just had a terrible game," Fletcher said. "I got beat. I got beat today. I came up short and I didn't play well."

Bryant, held to four catches and 73 yards in the Thanksgiving game, started talking about a rematch as soon as the first meeting was over. He was sure the Cowboys could do better the second time around, and he sure was right.

This was Thanksgiving Day in reverse, and now Dallas has control of the division with just two games remaining.

Romo completed 22 of 31 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns, exposing the Eagles' secondary as the weakness it has been most of the season. Bryant caught six passes, including all three touchdown throws, for 114 yards. Jason Witten, after catching just one pass in Dallas, had a game-high seven receptions for 69 yards. And Murray ran for 81 yards and two touchdowns.

"We knew it was going to be a different Cowboy team coming in here and we knew they were going to play with a little bit more fire," Williams said. "They showed up and made plays and we didn't."

By no means was the secondary and defense entirely to blame for this disastrous night of football, but they were a huge part of the problem.

Fletcher was in coverage on all three touchdowns to Bryant. Romo made a back shoulder throw for the first touchdown to Bryant and made perfect deep throws that dropped right into the waiting arms of his 6-foot-2 receiver on the second two.

"Fletch, on the first one he wasn't as close as he was on the second one, but at the end of the day Dez made both plays," Davis said. "We have to eliminate those from happening. We have to get ourselves off the field."

The second of Romo's touchdown throws was a 26-yard touchdown that left the Eagles staring at a 21-0 deficit with just over three minutes gone in the second quarter. It was every bit as stunning as what had happened down in Dallas, only with the roles reversed.

While Fletcher struggled to cover Bryant, Williams was flagged for a critical penalty just before the Cowboys' third score. The cornerback was incensed about an illegal contact call on a third-and-10 play that negated a Vinny Curry sack, which would have pushed Dallas out of field goal range and ended the drive.

Williams, however, refused to rip the officiating afterward. "You can't complain about calls," he said. "It's up to the ref and their decisions and what they see. If they see something they think is a flag, they throw it and you have to play the next play. That's just the world we live in as defensive backs. It's difficult, but you can't complain about it."

Remarkably, the Eagles recovered from the 21-point deficit with 24 unanswered points to take the lead in the third quarter, and the secondary deserved a lot of the credit. Thanks to great coverage, Curry got a sack and forced a Romo fumble with 6:46 left in the third quarter that the Eagles recovered at the Dallas 14-yard line.

The Linc erupted when the Eagles scored three plays later, but that would be the end of the celebration for the home fans on this night.

Romo immediately got the Cowboys going again by connecting for a 22-yard pass to Bryant and, yes, Fletcher was in coverage again. Another 22-yard completion from Romo to Bryant put the ball on the Eagles' 2-yard line. This time, Romo exploited zone coverage. Murray scored from 2 yards out on the next play.

After a Mark Sánchez interception, Romo went to Bryant again for a 28-yard touchdown with Fletcher helplessly trailing behind. That put the Cowboys up by 38-24 and the Eagles were not going to recover from a second double-digit deficit.