Cowboys survive Sean Lee's absence

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are undefeated without star middle linebacker Sean Lee this season.

That's not a trend they intend to test.

All indications are that Lee, who strained his hamstring in the Nov. 10 loss to the New Orleans Saints, will be back for the Cowboys' final four games. He said after the Cowboys' 31-24 win over the Oakland Raiders on Thursday that he'd be “surprised” if he isn't ready to practice next week and play in the Dec. 9 game against the Chicago Bears and beyond.

Those games are even more critical after the Cowboys managed to win a couple of games with Lee on the sideline. The much-maligned Dallas defense, which is ranked last in the league in total yards, did its part during Lee's recovery time to keep the Cowboys in the NFC East race.

“You've got to give a ton of credit to a lot of these guys that stepped up, guys like Kyle Wilber and Ernie Sims,” said Lee, who played a critical role as a quasi-assistant coach the last couple of weeks, helping prepare Wilber and Sims to play new positions in the linebacker corps. “They've put a ton of work in. They've been unbelievable and a huge reason we've been able to win.”

Nobody is pretending that the Cowboys' defense dominated the last two weeks. That's certainly not the case.

The New York Giants ran the ball down Dallas' throat, with running backs Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs combining for 202 yards on 30 carries. But Dallas' defense held the Giants to 21 points and scored a touchdown of its own on Jeff Heath's 50-yard fumble return, doing its share to shut up the loudmouth Giants.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was determined to make sure the Raiders didn't beat Dallas with the running game, putting eight men in the box on a regular basis. That strategy didn't work out so well in the first half, when undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin completed 11 of 15 passes for 146 yards to help Oakland take a 21-14 lead into the break.

It's less than ideal that ex-Cowboys receiver Andre Holmes (seven catches for 136 yards) had a career day -- really, those numbers are better than his previous career total -- but the defense again did enough to win the game with its best player wearing sweats.

Kyle Wilber, who might hang on to the starting strongside linebacker job even when Justin Durant is ready to return from his hamstring strain, recovered a fumble at the Oakland 2 to set up a touchdown when Dallas' offense desperately needed a spark. Cornerback Brandon Carr came up with an interception in the end zone to deny a Raiders threat. And the Cowboys' defense held Oakland to only three points after halftime.

The defense's performances certainly haven't been perfect without Lee, but the Cowboys' record has been.

“I'm not surprised that we've been able to win some games,” owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, “but we just missed him a lot.”

Lee expects to return next week, and the Cowboys hope to keep the momentum rolling.