Cowboys' hopes alive but unrealistic

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Dallas Cowboys' dream didn't die Sunday afternoon. They survived against a 1-5 team.

Go ahead, join Jerry Jones in envisioning a Lombardi trophy in the future of his .500 team. Buy a few of those Cowboys lottery tickets while you're feeling lucky.
The cold, harsh truth: Unless something drastically changes, the Cowboys' 19-14 win over the Carolina Panthers only delayed the inevitable.

Plain and simple, this is not a playoff-caliber team. And the Cowboys certainly aren't the Super Bowl contender that Jones seems so determined to convince the world they are.

Reality comes reckoning next weekend at The House that Eli Signed, aka Jerry World. And the New York Giants will arrive with revenge on their minds, having been on the wrong end of the lone occasion the Cowboys looked like a legitimate threat this season.

"We know what that game means," Jones said Sunday in the visitors' locker room at Bank of America Stadium. "We do a good job against the Giants and come out of there with the win, what is everybody going to be saying? It's amazing what eight days could do."

Calm down, Jerry.

Since the Cowboys pulled off that stunning upset in the season opener, the Giants have lived up to the billing of a defending Super Bowl title team. That included a 29-point rout of the Panthers on the same turf that the Cowboys walked off of breathing a huge sigh of relief Sunday.

The Cowboys were fortunate to be matched up against a team that's even better than they are at finding ways to lose. It's almost impossible to lose a close game to the Panthers, who have lost nine of their past 10 games decided by seven or fewer points, especially if the officials' whistles go your way.

A Super Bowl contender shouldn't need to get breaks to beat a bad team.

Don't bother trying to tell Jerry that, though. He just sees a .500 record that gives his team a fighting chance to make the playoffs. The odds of that happening would have been slim-to-none if the Cowboys left Carolina as a 2-4 team.

That's why Jerry called this "a beautiful win."

You can't convince him that a team with a healthy Tony Romo and a lot of other high-dollar talent has no chance of making a playoff run. Jerry just keeps repeating it: He's put together a team good enough to win it all this season.

"To make that statement, you've got to feel that you have the horses, that you have the players to compete against those teams you know can be in the Super Bowl," Jones said. "I feel that way. I know we do.

"I feel that way as the owner and general manager."

And he sure feels that way as the man in charge of marketing a franchise that has somehow remained relevant despite winning only one playoff game in the last decade and a half.

This is what Jerry does for a living. He sells hope.

To his credit, Jerry knows he can't fool folks into believing that the Cowboys are anything close to a Super Bowl-quality team right now. That'd be ridiculous after watching the Cowboys get blown out in two of their three losses and winning ugly in two of their three victories.

"I believe that we can play better," Jones said. "I think we're getting better."

Jones hopes an offensive line that was a liability in the first four games is rounding into form after whipping the Ravens' deteriorated front seven and preventing the Panthers from sacking Romo. A gruesome ankle injury suffered by center Phil Costa won't help that cause, though.

Jones hopes that Dez Bryant can develop into a receiver who dominates games on a consistent basis. Bryant took a step backward Sunday, when he was held to two catches for 14 yards and had another critical drop.

Jones hopes his major investments at cornerback begin paying big dividends. Hey, Morris Claiborne did snap the Dallas secondary's streak of 333 passes without a pick.

And on and on. Escaping Carolina with a win kept hope alive for the Cowboys.

"It's about improvement," Romo said. "If you take that mindset, you give yourself a chance to be the team you want to be at the end."

The improvement better come quickly. Look at the next few weeks of the Cowboys' schedule. They play the defending Super Bowl champs in a building where the Giants have never lost, face the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on the road and play the equally frustrating Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, site of two of the most embarrassing losses in recent Cowboys history.

Forget about the end of the year for a moment. If the Cowboys don't get much better in a hurry, their hope won't survive the middle of the season.