ARLINGTON, Texas — Dallas scored 24 unanswered points to rally for a Thanksgiving Day win that put the Cowboys in the drivers' seat in the NFC East.
But one of the most positive developments from the Cowboys' 31-24 win over Oakland at AT&T Stadium was that linebacker Sean Lee said he has no doubts he'll return when Dallas plays in 10 days in a Monday night showdown at Chicago.
After overcoming a 21-7 late first-half deficit, the Cowboys are two games over .500 for the first time all season. But a season-long trend underscored why the Cowboys will be severely challenged to win a playoff game this season.
If the Cowboys make the playoffs.
Dallas' defense once again made key plays to secure the win. But the Cowboys struggled to get off the field in the first half, and Dallas is on pace to allow the third-most yards in NFL history.
The most telling stat was Oakland was six-for-six on third-down chances during second-quarter 79- and 50-yard touchdown drives.
The Cowboys have lost four starters to season-ending injuries, and the strain is showing.
“It's hard to play consistently when guys are always going down,” said Lee, who has been sidelined for two games with a strained hamstring. “Now that some guys are getting healthy, and others are learning our system, that should really help us down the stretch.”
Oakland compiled only 305 total yards, but the players doing the damage were additional evidence that the Dallas defense has issues.
Raiders rookie quarterback Matt McGloin, undrafted out of Penn State, threw for 255 yards in his second career NFL start.
Oakland receiver Andre Holmes, once on the Cowboys' practice squad, entered Thursday's game with three catches all season. Against his former team, Holmes hauled in seven receptions for 136 yards.
“It's hard when you have a guy like Barry Church, a great safety, that you have to play (middle) linebacker for the first time in his life,” said Dallas defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. “Those things are not easy to do. Those are the type of things we've been faced with a lot this season.”
Oakland and Dallas traded gift touchdowns in the first quarter. Terrance Williams fumbled the opening kickoff. Oakland's Greg Jenkins returned it 23 yards for a 7-0 lead 12 seconds into the game. A McGloin fumble set up DeMarco Murray's first TD run.
After Oakland went up 21-7 on a Rashad Jennings 1-yard TD run with 1:56 left in the half, the Cowboys answered with a 63-yard TD drive.
“With them getting the ball to start the second half, down by two scores, I thought (that) was as important as anything in the game,” said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who contacted a virus and was throwing up the night before the game.
Bolstered by three touchdowns from Murray, Dallas marched 87 yards in 10 plays on its initial second-half possession to tie the game. The Cowboys followed with a 65-yard drive that gave them a 28-21 cushion with 14:20 remaining.
“We just had to get up our of our comfort zone,” said Dallas receiver Dez Bryant, a former OSU receiver who had seven catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. “I guess we were feeling too comfortable. We came in at halftime and were feeling great like: ‘We got this.' Our whole demeanor changed in the locker room.”
Owning the tiebreaker over the Eagles, Dallas is the team to beat in the NFC East. The Cowboys' lead is only a half game, but the Redskins and Giants essentially are out of the race. If Philadelphia loses to Arizona on Sunday, the Cowboys will have a stranglehold on the division.
But it's only November. The Cowboys' December struggles — Romo is 11-15 in December games — have been well-documented.
“More than anything you've just go to keep stacking wins together and see where you're at when you get to the end,” Romo said. “I think we're playing some of our better football right now.”
The Cowboys, 4-0 in division games, need only to tie Philadelphia to win the division title.
But even if Dallas secures its first playoff berth since 2009, the Cowboys probably would open at home against a team like Carolina or San Francisco.
Romo and the offense consistently have proved they can light up scoreboards. But the defense?
“I've really been impressed with guys that didn't even start the season with us,” Lee said. “It will really help as we start getting guys back. The more guys we get back the more consistent we'll be, which will give us a lot better shot.”