field goal with 1:56 left in the half that gave them a 17-7 halftime lead. Not bad.
Yet, the Cowboys would only score three whole points the entire second half, and because of that, were forced to hang on for dear life down the stretch, leaving themselves one victory away from establishing the best regular-season record in club history.
"We weren't quite as explosive the second half," Phillips said of missing his Pro Bowl wide receiver. "But we had some opportunities."
No, they weren't, but for good reason. Did you realize the Cowboys were out there playing with Patrick Crayton, a former seventh-round draft choice, and last year's two undrafted free agents Sam Hurd and Miles Austin? Did you realize the Cowboys were playing without either of their starting wide receivers, Owens watching and Terry Glenn missing his 15th straight game?
Not good. In fact, really bad.
For it's not easy to replace 81 catches, 1,355 receiving yards and 15 touchdown receptions. Suddenly it seemed the field was shrinking on Romo, who threw for 257 yards but only 69 the second half. In fact, of the Cowboys' 405 total yards, only 114 were gained in the second half. His receivers weren't consistently getting separation.
Romo would complete only 7 of 10 passes the second half, and just four to wide receivers. Many times he was checking down or forcing passes into tight spots. In the first half with Owens on the field the Cowboys' wide receivers had 13 receptions.
His absence was noticeable.
"You lose a dimension when Terrell steps out of there," Jones said. "We should all take note of that."
Never was that more evident than on that budding early fourth-quarter drive that ended when Romo's pass from the Carolina 33 down the hash for a streaking Crayton was picked off at the 3 by Thomas Davis. He's a linebacker. When Romo went back to pass on that play he probably assumed he would have an open receiver when the Panthers got caught covering the slot receiver with a linebacker.
He really didn't, and probably should have throttled down. But that is hard for Romo and the Cowboys' offense to accept after the club has now piled up 449 points this season, their most since scoring a club record 479 in 1983 and five short of matching the second-highest single-season total. Let that sink in for a moment.
"As the game moved on you sensed it was going to be one of these," said Romo, pointing out the Panthers played more fronts than they have seen from one team all year. "Nothing came easy."
So with Owens' ankle swelling and throbbing and the offense sputtering along, the Cowboys allowed Carolina (6-9) to hang around, to make a game out of what statistically wasn't much of a game at all. Look, yeah it was 20-13 in the end, but Carolina only totaled 216 yards, and 96 of those came on two plays. That means on the other 45 plays the Panthers gained all of 120 yards - an average of 2.4 yards per play.
That's a wipeout.
But DeAngelo Williams' 39-yard run to the Cowboys 11 set up the Panthers' only touchdown, and Steve Smith's 57-yard catch of Moore's fourth-down heave down the middle set up the Panthers' final field goal with 3:01 left.
That, though, was the key stand in the game for the Cowboys' defense, nary budging a inch while facing first-and-goal at the 9, and that despite Tank Johnson getting called for hitting Moore high on his first-down sack.
All meaning the Cowboys had the stomach for the fray, even though they were playing without Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode, then Pro Bowler Terrell Owens, then for a short time Pro Bowl corner Terence Newman when Steve Smith beat his replacement Jacques Reeves for the 11-yard touchdown reception and then nose tackle Jay Ratliff (knee) for a short period of time. All this on top of Roy Williams' one-game suspension and Patrick Watkins out with a sprained ankle.
That's a whole lot to stomach, and on the road on top of that.
But as Owens said just before heading out of the locker room hallway, "The guys gutted it out."
They sure did, and for that Phillips was seen strolling down the aisle of the team's charter before takeoff wishing his guys "Merry Christmas."