IRVING, Texas – Checking the standings is a foolproof way to see how teams are doing. Cowboys coach Wade Phillips uses another test to gauge how good they really are.
Phillips finds the score of every game when it was truly decided to help decipher those wins and losses. His research is rooted in the notion that the best teams put games away early and, when they lose, they're in it to the end.
By that measure, his club is doing just fine, even at 1-2 going into their bye weekend.
The Cowboys were driving for the go-ahead or tying touchdown on their last possession in both losses. In their win, last Sunday at Houston, they led 24-6 when all but die-hard viewers lost interest.
While Phillips gladly would trade a close loss for a narrow win, the way Dallas won the last game leads him to believe things will fall into place. The defense made a goal line stand and finally came up with a turnover — three, actually; the offense had touchdown drives of 74, 80 and 90 yards; and kicker David Buehler had his first game without a miss, nailing field goals from 40 and 49 yards.
"That was our true identity," safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "This football team really can play."
After hearing all summer that they were favorites to win the NFC, the Cowboys came crashing down with back-to-back opening losses. Instead of chatter about whether Dallas could become the first team to play in the Super Bowl at home, the debates were about the team being overrated, the players considered more talented than they really were.
So had they lost again and hit 0-3, they would've been reeling, no matter how Phillips might've tried to spin it. This open week would've been filled with finger-pointing.
Instead, the mood has been fine. Optimistic, even, because of the thorough win in Houston. The Cowboys know they're only one game behind in the division race. A few more wins and they might even revive talk of playing in Cowboys Stadium on Feb. 6.
So far, the ugly start has only cost them their margin for error.
Dallas can lose again, but not many times, and certainly not many in a row. When those losses come will be crucial, too, because the Cowboys already have dropped two conference games and one in their division.
Yet, for this club, playing catch-up could be a good thing. They played their best in make-or-break games last year and in their one such challenge this season.
"We have 13 games left — any relief is a set up for disaster," defensive end Marcus Spears said.
The immediate challenge is sustaining whatever momentum they have going.
Phillips proclaimed practice on Wednesday the best he'd seen from this club during a bye week. Their reward: Thursday's schedule was shuffled so players could be done early in the afternoon, giving them a head start on a three-day weekend.
How they perform when they return Monday could be a good barometer of whether the team has its kinks worked out.
"The leadership of this football team has to make sure that everybody sticks to this mentality — keep going forward, you can't lay down any," Sensabaugh said. "You have to keep making sure that we stay hungry."
That revives the notion the Cowboys were fat and happy the first two weeks. Cornerback Terence Newman mentioned practice woes following the second loss — as if the result wasn't evidence enough.
Phillips responded by mixing up the routine. Linebacker Keith Brooking said their crisp performance against Houston was a byproduct of a good week on the practice field.
"We were conscious of correcting the mistakes that we made the first couple of games," Brooking said. "We realized that as long as we don't go out there and play undisciplined football and we execute every play ... there's not a lot of teams in this league that can beat us."
The Cowboys had a similar, season-salvaging victory going into its bye last season, pulling out an overtime win in Kansas City. They won three straight and five of six after the break, lifting them from 3-2 and two games out of first place in the NFC East to 8-3 and atop the division.
The schedule gives them a chance to surge again.
Three of the next four are at home, starting with Tennessee (2-1). Then comes a run of teams currently 1-2: at Minnesota (a rematch of last year's playoff loss), then home for the New York Giants on a Monday night, followed by Jacksonville.
"To look at it and say, 'we're one game or 1½ games out — or whatever it is — in our division,' I think is the wrong way to think about it," Brooking said. "There's a lot of ball to be played yet. We just have to continue to get better and obviously approach it the way we did last week. The rest will take care of itself."
This team also has a new rallying cry: Do we want to live?
Special teams coach Joe DeCamillis brought it up before the Houston game, speaking about his life-or-death struggle when the team's practice facility collapsed in May 2009. He broke his neck, underwent surgery and was back at work about two weeks later.
DeCamillis kept bringing it up during the game, too. Since it worked, expect to hear it again.
"It was good for him to say that because it was actually the first time he's really ever talked about it," Spears said. "It caught us off guard, but it was the truth."