IRVING, Texas – Head coach Jason Garrett put the game in the hands of his defense after calling a running play on third-and-9 at Carolina's 15-yard line to set up a fourth quarter field goal, which put the Cowboys ahead by two points.
While some would argue the play call was conservative with 3:28 remaining in the game, the defense didn't mind the opportunity to preserve the win. Linebacker Anthony Spencer said he understood Garrett's play call, comparing it to his own managing history.
"Whenever I'm playing Madden or whatever, whenever I've got an opportunity to get points, I'm going to take it," Spencer said. "So I liked it."
The decision didn't backfire, as the Cowboys defense forced a contested incomplete pass on fourth down on Carolina's next possession. Dallas then handed the ball off four straight times to Phillip Tanner before kicking another field goal with less than a minute remaining.
Once again, the defense stopped the Panthers from reaching midfield to preserve the victory.
"When the coach put the responsibility on the defense to close the game, he could have tried to score a touchdown, but he didn't," said DeMarcus Ware. "He kicked a field goal and said all right, fellas, defense, you need to go out there and close the game for us. That's what great defenses do."
Spencer went a step further. He said once the Cowboys defense gets rolling, it will be one of the best in the league.
The defense hadn't played with a healthy starting front seven all year until Sunday. Spencer, who missed the last two games with a pectoral injury, started with Jay Ratliff for the first time this year. He said after Dan Bailey's first field goal of the fourth quarter went through the uprights, the defense only talked about one thing as they prepared to hold the lead.
"It's the same talk we've had in the locker room since training camp, just leaning on each other," Spencer said. "We've got to depend on each other."
They did just that, holding the Panthers scoreless after Mike Tolbert's rushing touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Spencer's sack on the final drive of the game put the Panthers in an unmanageable fourth-and-20 situation, which led to a failed lateral that ended the game.
"We felt great about how our defense was playing and their ability to shut them down at that point in the game, and as it turned out, that's exactly what happened," Garrett said. "They made the big stop."
Garrett said his decision to run the ball in the red zone on third-and-long after an incomplete pass to Dez Bryant had nothing to do with a lack of trust in his offense and more to do with faith in his defense, which held the Panthers to two scoring drives. He said he was confident the defense "would rise up again."
"The biggest thing we wanted to do was preserve the opportunity to win the ball game by a touchdown or by a field goal," Garrett said. "We felt like that was a pretty decent play."