CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the most pivotal sequence of the game, when the Cowboys took a late lead over the Panthers, it appeared head coach Jason Garrett was playing to not lose rather than to win.
Ultimately, though, that's really all Sunday was about, and Garrett's conservative decision to settle for a late field goal turned out to be the right call. The Cowboys defense did its job twice, and the visitors escaped Carolina with a win, keeping this young season out of the ditch by advancing to 3-3, far more palatable than 2-4.
Facing a third-and-nine at the Carolina 15, Garrett elected to run the ball rather than force a pass, which the Panthers were loaded up to stop. While the call would've certainly been questioned had it backfired, the coach was sure it was the best decision at the time.
"They wanted to play big-time coverage there," Garrett said. "We wanted to preserve the opportunity there to kick that field goal. … We felt like that was a good answer against the shell coverage, three-man rush they were going to do. If they had done something else, we would've been in something else.
Dan Bailey nailed the go-ahead kick, something he couldn't do the previous week in a heartbreaking loss, though this one was of a far more manageable distance.
The season has certainly had its ups and downs, but having played just two games at home and four on the road, the Cowboys are not in an awful position, though they will have to play better than they did Sunday to win big games ahead. That starts with next week's rematch of their season-opening upset of the defending champion Giants, now 5-2 and atop the NFC East by 1.5 games.
"These things are going to be close," said owner Jerry Jones, who just days prior had suggested his team may be in the process of evolving into one that could compete for something big at the end of the year.
"Candidly, the win, to get out on the upper end of that score, was beautiful to me. There wasn't one thing ugly about it."
If the Cowboys are to become a team with even the slightest shot at competing for a title, it'll be through the kind of perseverance they showed Sunday. Things were less than perfect from the very beginning, when Bailey's opening kickoff sailed out of bounds, but the defense kept the Panthers from establishing an early edge. Likewise, the Cowboys' offense got only three first-half drives, going three-and-out once, settling for a disappointing field goal after an 18 play march another time, then losing the ball on a fumble, but the defense kept the game close.
The Panthers struggled to run the ball all day, save for quarterback Cam Newton, and he was forced into several mistakes of his own when attempting to pass, none more damning than a second quarter interception in the end zone by Morris Claiborne, amazingly the first pick by a Cowboys defensive back this season.
The Panthers led 7-3 at halftime, making Sunday's game the 11th they have lost after leading through two quarters under second-year head coach Ron Rivera. Though the Panthers added another touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had confidence in their defense to stop Newton late.
"We trust our defense immensely," Garrett said.
On the Panthers' ensuing possession, Newton appeared to extend the drive by converting a short fourth-down throw near midfield, but officials ruled Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had signaled a timeout first. When the teams lined up again, Newton's pass was incomplete, cornerback Morris Claiborne appearing to get away with a physical defensive play on a pass to Louis Murphy.
The turn of events allowed the Cowboys to tack on another field goal, forcing Carolina to have to go the length of the field at the end. Though Newton appeared to have a shot on a deep ball to Brandon LaFell, the Cowboys defense prevailed.
"We feel like we always have pressure on us, no matter what the lead is, no matter if we're down," Claiborne said. "We have a lot of pride in what we do to go out and try to get stops."
The defense will have to be at its best once again in seven days, needing a repeat of Sept. 5, when they limited Eli Manning and New York to just 17 points. They'll need more help from the offense along the way, too, with a more sustained run game and better protection of the ball than was on display against the Panthers.
Though this team hasn't yet been able to sustain momentum, they continue to build reasons for hope.
"I think each week you have to start fresh and work hard," said Miles Austin, who was on the receiving end of the Cowboys' only touchdown. "It's going to be big. It's obviously a huge week … they all are."