Moral of Cowboys' story: Today is a must-win game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Considering what happened at Texas A&M a few months ago when the athletic department added a couple of national titles and conference titles to the school's football ledger, anything is possible.

Maybe one day Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will come back and officially count last Sunday's 31-29 loss to the Baltimore Ravens as a victory.

Why not?

It was treated as such by him and many members of the team based on their extremely positive outlook in the immediate aftermath of the game and the days following.

Never mind that it was the Cowboys' second consecutive loss, dropping them to 2-3 on the season.

Jones went so far as to declare the Cowboys viable Super Bowl contenders rather than on the brink of disaster heading into today's game against the Carolina Panthers (1-4).

Moral victories aside, the reality for the Cowboys is that this is a must-win game if they hope to salvage the season and keep Jones' championship dreams alive.

A third consecutive loss would leave them in bad shape, with matchups against the New York Giants (4-2) at home followed by road games at the Atlanta Falcons (6-0) and the Philadelphia Eagles (3-3).

To that end, tight end Jason Witten has called the Panthers game a pivotal one for their season.

"Obviously it's a critical time of the season that you have to find a way to get a win" Witten said. "You can't really get caught up in anything else other than that. We need to go get a big win against Carolina."

The question the Cowboys must answer -- which is the crux of the moral-victory issue from the Ravens game -- is: Do they have what it takes to end their losing streak and get on a run?

Coach Jason Garrett said the Cowboys did some good things against the Ravens that they can build on against the Panthers today and the weeks ahead.

Topping the list was the fight and spirit the team displayed, overcoming a litany of injuries and adversity as well as an 11-point second-half deficit to battle back and put themselves in position for a failed game-winning field-goal attempt in the final moments.

Add in the improved play of the offensive line, which keyed a robust effort on the ground and helped them control the clock for more than 40 minutes.

The Cowboys rushed for 227 yards after gaining just 129 in the previous three games combined. It was a part of a 481-yard effort rushing and passing, offering a glimpse of a balanced attack that could potentially give opponents fits.

"I thought we played really well in a lot of areas." Garrett said. We kept the ball for 40 minutes in the game against that defense at their place. That is hard. That was a real positive thing. Defensively, at different times in the game we came up with some critical stops. I thought that was certainly positive. There were a lot of things to feel good about. There are no moral victories as we know. But there were some positive things we can build on."

This is the NFL, where the bottom line is the bottom line.

While the Cowboys did fight through adversity and battled back to put themselves in position to win the game at the end, much of the adversity was self-created.

That has been their story all season.

The Cowboys committed 13 penalties for the third time in five games this season, including four for 40 yards on an 18-play drive for their final touchdown, when they actually covered 120 yards rather than 80 yards

The Cowboys gave up an NFL-record-tying 108-yard kickoff return to Jacoby Jones, who went untouched from one end zone to the other.

Combine that with special teams woes that can cost victories: Felix Jones' fumble on a kickoff return in Seattle, a blocked punt in Seattle on a missed block by Dan Connor and a near blocked punt against Tampa Bay that left punter Chris Jones injured.

And that's before you get into the poor clock management at the end of the game by Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo that possibly prevented the Cowboys from getting in position for a closer attempt at a game-winning field goal. Add in the lack of urgency by receivers Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree that derailed a chance to run another play.

Linebacker DeMarcus Ware wants results and says the Cowboys won't win if they don't quit beating themselves, no matter how hard they play.

"We see a lot of great things we did in the game, but at the end of the day some of those small things got us beat," Ware said. "Penalties in general in all phases of our team have to stop. We haven't been finishing games like we should. We have to turn it around."

It was Witten who summed up the situation when he said there is nothing wrong with finding positives in your play as long as you have the right perspective. Witten said winning is all that matters, and that's the Cowboys' only focus today.

"First of all it should hurt that you lose that game," Witten said. "We did some good things. Ultimately, I think I speak for this team, it's not about doing good things, it's about winning games. We just need to go win this week."

No fake wins, retroactive wins or moral victories, a real, bona fide win today. Otherwise, good feelings of the last week will be replaced by doom and gloom.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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