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ARLINGTON, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys had two weeks to stew over a blowout loss to New Orleans that was their worst since Jason Garrett took over as coach three years ago.
They have almost as long to ponder their response — consecutive wins that will have Dallas either holding or sharing the NFC East lead and seeking to end a three-year playoff drought going into the final quarter of the season.
The Cowboys (7-5) start a 10-day break with four days off after a 31-24 Thanksgiving victory against Oakland, overcoming a slow start and building on the momentum of a last-play win at the New York Giants that answered the demoralizing night in New Orleans.
"We were coming off an emotional win four days ago," said cornerback Brandon Carr, who was burned early against the Raiders but bounced back with an interception in the end zone with Oakland driving for a potential tying score in the fourth quarter.
"A slow start doesn't necessarily mean that's the way the game should go."
If Philadelphia (6-5) beats Arizona on Sunday for its fourth straight win, the Eagles will pull even with the Cowboys again atop the division with a showdown looming on the final day of the regular season.
In the meantime, the Cowboys return Dec. 9 against Chicago, which could be without Jay Cutler. Then it's Green Bay at home, although the Packers might have Aaron Rodgers back by then.
Dallas visits Washington on Dec. 22 before getting Philadelphia at home.
"I don't know how you can get any better practice with a lot on the line than to have a game like that," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, referring to Dallas rallying from 14 points down in the second quarter against the Raiders.
"I think that's something our team can build on that's what you hope to have happen with three or four positive endings to maybe get ready to have a big year."
Jones said after beating Oakland that health and luck were two important ingredients in pursuit of the playoffs, and the Cowboys have one position that's prominent in that formula: middle linebacker.
Sean Lee missed his second straight game against the Raiders with a strained hamstring, but he was running in practice this week and will be three weeks removed from the injury by the time Dallas goes to Chicago.
Justin Durant, who took over in the middle when Lee got hurt against the Saints and then went out with a hamstring injury in the same game, could return as well.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne and receiver/kick returner Dwayne Harris also could be back after hurting their hamstrings against the Giants.
"Apart from that New Orleans game, which really stunned me, I had really thought that we were playing better that what our record would indicate," Jones said.
"I can see that this team has got a resolve that's worked hard and it will use this break and we'll get some guys back and use this break to build on."
The health of Tony Romo shouldn't be an issue. He has plenty of time to recover after playing through a stomach virus to lead a momentum-turning drive at the end of the first half and then complete all 12 of his passes in the second half, including a 4-yarder to Dez Bryant for his only touchdown.
The same is not true for backup running back Lance Dunbar, who led Dallas with a career-high 82 yards rushing before spraining his left knee in the fourth quarter. His spark led to the second-best rushing game of the season for the Cowboys, who had 144 yards and got three touchdowns on the ground from DeMarco Murray.
Dunbar is expected to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury sustained in the win over Oakland.
The Cowboys reported on their website Friday that Dunbar will have surgery for an injury to the joint in his left knee.
"We're used to this," Garrett said. "You have to get ready to play your best on Thursday. That needs to be where your focus is, and then hopefully you get away from it a little bit and get ready for the next challenge."
For the Cowboys, that means another four-day break just two weeks after getting one for their bye.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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