ARLINGTON, Texas – If any of the Cowboys' players want to eat their lunch during the week, they must leave the locker room at Valley Ranch and walk a few steps to a kitchen area.
In doing so, their eyes cannot avoid a wall-sized motivational sign that reads "FIND A WAY TO WIN."
That's all the Cowboys did here Sunday against the Texans, grinding out a hard-fought 20-17 win that needed more than your regular 60 minutes of action.
Call it an ugly win. Call the Cowboys lucky to survive. Or you can call it a team that is slowly but surely showing us how much better it is. The Cowboys are just a better football team than we've seen in recent years, and it goes much further than their 4-1 record.
Say what you want about this game, but to me, this one was more eye-raising than last week's 21-point win over the Saints.
Last week, the Cowboys whipped New Orleans from start to finish. They won all three phases of the game and it was reflective on the scoreboard at the end.
This week, the Cowboys really didn't out-play the Texans at all. They lost the turnover battle. They wasted opportunities in the red zone. They gave up 10 points in the final three minutes of the game. They missed a chance to win the game in regulation – proving to us all that maybe, just maybe Dan Bailey is part-human. They even lost the coin toss in overtime and let the Texans drive to midfield.
Add all of those things up and NFL teams usually lose. The Cowboys just wouldn't fold.
At some point, we're going to start calling this a pretty good defense. I know about last year – this team isn't far removed from being the worst in the NFL and the worst in franchise history. But this is a new defense, just like it's looking to be a new team.
The defense gets pushed on, but they're starting to push back.
Case in point was overtime, when the Texans had all the momentum and were driving to either a game-winning touchdown or a field goal to give them an important lead.
Earlier in the game, linebacker Justin Durant was beaten by running back Arian Foster on a third-down pass. This time, on third-and-2 at the Cowboys' 48-yard line, Durant stuck with Foster long enough and Ryan Fitzpatrick was blasted by Jeremy Mincey for an incomplete throw. The Cowboys got the ball back and then marched down for a game-winning field goal.
Last year's defense doesn't fight back right there. Well, last year's defense doesn't hold the Texans to 17 points in regulation and certainly wouldn't pitch a first-half shutout for the second straight game.
This defense is growing up and doing so without the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee. Guys like Rolando McClain make a huge difference. He not only has instincts at the MIKE spot that are uncanny, but when he hits you, it's a punishing tackle. Mincey has been better than we thought. Durant is playing better than we've seen since he's been with the Cowboys, and Tyrone Crawford is starting to come on strong to meet those preseason expectations.
Rod Marinelli has patched it together despite losing a starting linebacker for three out of four games, despite losing Orlando Scandrick for two games, and despite losing the third cornerback in Mo Claiborne, who is out for the season.
Sunday was an example of what this defense has become. Mincey said the Cowboys have a "no retreat, no surrender mentality" and that was on display against the Texans.
Without the defense, the Cowboys probably don't win this game.
Tony Romo was pretty good for most of the day, but threw a costly red-zone interception.
Dez Bryant wasn't a huge factor until the end when he became beastly.
Terrance Williams scored a touchdown, but had a drop that likely took away another score.
Dan Bailey won the game, but his end-of-regulation miss could've been costly.
The offensive line paved the way for 456 total yards, but [embedded_ad]
they had trouble with the Texans' front-line all day, hurrying Romo and his throws.
DeMarco Murray had his fifth straight 100-yard game, but not without another lost fumble in the red zone.
Dwayne Harris had a 38-yard punt return that led to a score, but also had a lost fumble.
Even the crowd at AT&T Stadium was loud at times, but not always for the Cowboys. Jason Witten and Tony Romo seemed pretty upset with having to go with a silent-count at home because of the raucous Texans fans.
In more ways than one, the Cowboys were far from perfect Sunday against Houston. Yet, they still managed to follow the sign and "found a way to win."
That, more than anything we've seen in the first five weeks of the season, could be the most telling sign of all.