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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 1 1/2 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.”