IRVING, Texas — This time, being a .500 team gives the Dallas Cowboys a chance to make a significant move in the NFC East.
Without that imperfect win at Carolina after consecutive losses, the Cowboys (3-3) could have really been in a scramble going into their stretch of four division games the next six weeks.
"I looked at it last night, I saw the games we have coming up and how big they are for us," linebacker Anthony Spencer said Monday. "If we can get a couple of wins here in a row, it's going to help us out more toward the end of the season."
The Cowboys play Sunday against the NFC East-leading and defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (5-2), who have won five of six games since their season-opening loss at home to Dallas.
It is the only home game in a six-week span for Dallas, against the only division opponent they have already played this season.
While acknowledging the importance of division games, coach Jason Garrett said his focus is solely on this week's game against the Giants. Not the upcoming stretch when Dallas has both of its games against Philadelphia (3-3) and plays division rival Washington (3-4) at home as well.
"That's how we do things around here. We're focused on cleaning up yesterday's game in our meetings today, getting our lifts in, our run in, and pointing our attention to the Giants," Garrett said. "They're in our division, so there's no reason to look anywhere else but this game."
The Giants have never lost at Cowboys Stadium, winning three games there. The facility opened in 2009 with New York winning the first-ever regular-season game.
DeMarcus Ware knows this is a big week for Dallas, and how important sweeping the Giants could be.
"When you think about NFC East games, the way that they are playing, if you're not able to get wins early against big teams, it can come back to haunt you," Ware said. "So when you have the opportunity to get big wins against NFC East teams, we have to do it."
Dallas got a much-needed 19-14 victory Sunday despite being outgained by the Panthers and scoring only one touchdown.
Dan Bailey kicked four field goals, including a 28-yard go-ahead kick with 3:25 left. The defense stopped Carolina on fourth down with just over 2 minutes left, before Bailey added another field goal before Cam Newton and the Panthers got one more chance.
"Just lean on each other. We got to depend on each other," Spencer said. "We know that our offense is going to have to put points on the board and we're going to have to stop teams from scoring. It's going to come down to when our offense is going to have to put points on the board to win the game and it just happened be that we had to stop them to win the game."
Spencer was back after a strained pectoral muscle forced him to miss two games over a three-week span when Dallas had its bye week. He said he felt good and was having fun, including a sack of Newton that set the Panthers up for a game-ending fourth-and-20 play.
The latest victory, a vital one for the Cowboys this year, got them back to .500 for this season — and the extended stretch of more than 15 years.
They are now 123-123 in regular-season games since 1997, a span when they have won only one playoff game.
Running back DeMarco Murray missed the Carolina game because of a sprained left good. There is a chance he could be back to practice in some capacity Wednesday.
"We'll wait and see on that. We're certainly optimistic," Garrett said. "He's proven to be someone who heals quickly. We'll monitor him day by day but we'll have to wait and see."
Garrett said the Cowboys were still waiting late Monday for results of an MRI on linebacker Sean Lee's sprained right toe that knocked him out in the third quarter of the Carolina game.
Center Phil Cost had to be taken off the field on a cart Sunday because of a right ankle injury. Garrett said the injury may not be as bad as it looked at first, but still didn't elaborate on the extent of what he called a sprain.
"We are more optimistic about Costa now than we were yesterday. When that injury happened during the game everybody was concerned as he was being carted off," Garrett said. "By the end of the night last night and by today, we are a little more optimistic. It's a significant injury. We are not saying anything but that."