Struggles arrive earlier than usual

IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips stressed that his team stay together in Denver and at Valley Ranch.

In the past 24 hours, Phillips directed his team to maintain focus and not worry about a 17-10 loss to the Broncos on Sunday.

Phillips does not want this team to fall apart in October. He can't have it, especially with the Cowboys visiting a winless Chiefs team on Sunday and a bye week looming afterward. In previous years, the core group of players had been faulted for coming up short in big games down the stretch. This season, it hasn't played consistently in the first four weeks.

Phillips came out firing at the start of Monday afternoon's news conference, as if to send a message to his team and the fans that his club won't quit.

"I am upset that we lost the ballgame," Phillips said. "Our team is upset about it. Certainly, we're disappointed in the outcome of the game. I'm not disappointed in our team's effort. Our team is going to stay together. Our team is going to keep fighting, keep working harder, keep trying to do the things it takes to get better, and we're going to do that getting ready for this next ballgame."

Several Cowboys players seemed to get Phillips' message.

Free safety Ken Hamlin was asked when he put the loss to Denver behind him to begin focusing on Kansas City.

"When I woke up this morning," he said. "That's why it won't carry over. I'm here, and it's a new day."

Inside linebacker Bradie James said the Cowboys' previous issues in December -- they're 9-14 the past five seasons -- raised legitimate concerns about the team's ability to finish the season strong.

James, however, didn't expect such a slow start in the first four weeks of the season, with his team at 2-2.

"It's early," James said. "You're hinting about December. When December comes around here, we hadn't been consistent, but early in the season ... You want to start off real good early because you want to have those wins stacked up, because you don't know how things might happen with injuries at the end of the year."

There is a sense the team isn't practicing well. Inside linebacker Keith Brooking said the team needs to feel a sense of urgency during the week so it can carry over to the games.

"I wouldn't disagree with that," Hamlin said. "It can always get better with a win or loss. You can always get better; you can always improve. That's something we look to do each week. It's never going to be a perfect game, so we're always never satisfied, and we're not going to be satisfied."

Phillips said it was a positive sign his players are starting to realize that practice efforts mimic play on game day. But in meeting with the team after the game and on Monday, he seemed to bring home the point that the inconsistency can't continue. At the start of the season, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he expects his team's play to be worthy of his new $1.2 billion stadium.

Jones said the Broncos are deserving of their 4-0 mark and accepted the fact that his team is .500 and trying to find its way. Many players voiced displeasure with the record and are conflicted as to why that is.

"It's definitely [gut-check] time," wide receiver Patrick Crayton said. "It's time for us to really check ourselves now and say, 'Hey, look here. Regardless of what it takes, we're going to have to come out and start winning these games ugly at the end and be consistent.' Or we're going to be inconsistent, have penalties, have our punter kick seven, eight times a game and keep putting it on our defense. It's not going to happen like that."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.