CHARLOTTE, N.C. – From the very beginning of the game, the Cowboys set the tone. They ran it left, ran it right. Had some short passes, mixed in some deep throws. They played stout defense and held a good offense in check on the road.
All in all, they made enough plays to win…. But they fell short in the end.
Oh yeah, that was last week's game in Baltimore.
This time around, the Cowboys weren't as dominant on the ground. The offense sputtered at times and the defense wasn't as sharp until the end when they tightened it up, albeit against a less-skilled team on both sides of the ball.
The penalties were cut in half but still seemed untimely and problematic.
Overall, the Cowboys didn't play as well this week as they did last week. Yet, it was a more joyful plane ride home from Carolina because the Cowboys simply found a way to escape with a 19-14 win.
That's just how this NFL seems to work sometimes.
Obviously the opponent is a little different, although considering what happened to the Ravens in Houston, who really knows what anyone is right now.
But we know the Cowboys are 3-3 because they simply found a way to win this time, seven days after they found a way to lose in Baltimore.
Just remember this – if you're one who hates the term "moral victories" and never had a sense of optimism after last week's near-win, then you can't come back after this game and call it an ugly win. There's really no such thing.
Good losses don't exist in the NFL. Neither do bad wins.
Actually games like this are probably the best kind because it gives the Cowboys' coaches plenty to chew on all week – but with a 'W' in the pocket as well.
Obviously these next three games – at home against the Giants before consecutive road games in Atlanta and Philly – should get everyone's attention here. But it's good to have a 3-3 mark over 2-4 any day.
Let's not forget what the Panthers were dealing with on their side of the coin. They were 1-4 with two weeks to stew about their situation coming out of the bye week. If you thought the Cowboys were in a must-win situation, it had to be worse for Carolina.
Not sure if that was the Panthers' best shot, but they had the Cowboys staggering on a few occasions Sunday, especially the fourth quarter when the offense needed a 10-play, 44-yard drive to take the lead on a Dan Bailey field goal to put the Cowboys up 16-14.
And right then and there is where the Cowboys stepped it up from last week's game in Baltimore. Not only did Bailey put it through the uprights, as he did all day (except for the opening kickoff of the game when his wide-left hangover continued), but the defense stepped up on two occasions to slam the door.
That's really what winning games in the NFL is all about. I guess you can say the same thing about losing games.
As long as it doesn't get out of hand in the first 55 minutes, it really just comes down to end-of-game execution. The Cowboys were on point this week in all three phases of the game. And that's something to be encouraged about.
When the Cowboys got the ball back at their own 46 with about 7:32 to play, it wasn't methodical, but at least the offense had stellar execution. A third-down conversion by Phillip Tanner, followed by a 10-yard scramble by Tony Romo – then it was Tanner for four and a first-down pickup to Jason Witten.
We all criticized Jason Garrett for his end-of-game management last week, but this time he stayed conservative, trusting his kicker and defense. He didn't let Tony Romo loose to try and make a play for a go-ahead touchdown and instead let Dan Bailey take the lead on a field goal.
The defense held strong again, stopping the Panthers on a fourth-and-1. I know the Panthers wanted pass interference and it did appear Morris Claiborne was a tad early on the play. However, if they really wanted to be upset, blame the call. Seriously, you've got your best running back, who just happens to play quarterback, throwing a pass on fourth down ,when all he needs to do is lean forward for a yard. I thought the Panthers didn't utilize Newton as much as they should've on those short-yardage situations. But hey, the Panthers can question Ron Rivera all they want this week. That's just the way it goes in this league.
But as for the Cowboys, they made the right plays in the final few minutes. Once they got the ball back on downs, the Cowboys played it safe, but this time, benefited from someone else's mistake. Whether or not the Panthers should've been called for a horse-collar tackle, the Cowboys didn't apologize for their 15 yards, which put them in field goal range again.
After Bailey booted through his fourth field goal, it was back on the defense yet again. And although they gave up one play to Steve Smith, they were able to get to Newton with just four guys. That combo of DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher – something they hadn't had all season until Sunday - applied enough steady pressure in the end to close the door.
In fact, the Cowboys really got off the field all day long. The Panthers were just 2-of-10 on third downs and 0-for-2 on fourth-down conversions.
Umm, you think this team missed Anthony Spencer? I think it's safe to say he is a big piece to this defensive puzzle, and he's probably going to make a lot of money next year. The Cowboys will be smart if it's their money that gets spent.
All in all, it was a win. And considering the fact it's the 21st of October and they hadn't won a game since the 23rd of September … the Cowboys aren't in a position to worry about style points.
It was a win. It was a much-needed win. And since we established last week that "moral victories" are not in the vocabulary for this team, then ugly wins are non-existent as well. Obviously the Cowboys have to play better. Certainly, the competition is about to *get *better.