- Associated Press - Sunday, October 3, 2010

IRVING, TEXAS (AP) - 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.

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