Cowboys' response to loss is critical

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The visitors locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium was void of smiles and full of explanations.

The Dallas Cowboys had a chance Sunday afternoon to put some distance between themselves and their NFC East rivals, the New York Giants, and failed.

A 19-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in overtime left many Cowboys players searching for answers about what happened here.

"You just had a loss, [so] what are you going to do about it?" Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said as he walked to the team bus with a defiant attitude. "The good teams, they come back from a tough loss like that and you really see the true team spirit and how teams come back from adversity. That's what really tells you the type of character we have on this team. We're going to see that this week."

The Giants were in East Rutherford, N.J., fighting for their lives against the Green Bay Packers. They came close but couldn't hand the Packers their first loss of the season, fallling on Mason Crosby's 31-yard field goal with no time left.

If the Cowboys had beaten the Cardinals, they would have owned a two-game lead over their biggest challengers for the division crown. The meeting between the Cowboys and Giants next Sunday night could've been for the division title. Those NFC Eastern Division title hats with the star on them could've been distributed around like candy on Halloween with a Cowboys win next week.

Those hats are probably sitting in boxes somewhere. They won't be needed next week.

One game is all that separates the Giants and Cowboys.

"We're not looking at all these standings and all of that," Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff said. "We just go week-to-week."

In a team meeting last week, coach Jason Garrett told his team that an opportunity could be seized in the desert by beating the Cardinals. Garrett didn't care about what has happened in the past against the Cardinals.

All Garrett focused on was winning one game. He asked Dan Bailey to attempt a 53-yard field goal early. He called plays for Tony Romo to challenge the defense deep.

Mat McBriar punted toward the sidelines and high to control dangerous Cardinals punt returner Patrick Peterson, who leads the NFL with four returns for scores.

The Cowboys used Dez Bryant on punt returns full-time for the first time since Week 1 to make an impact.

But the Cowboys lost.

You can blame the timeout Garrett called that might have bothered Bailey on a potential game-winning field goal. You can blame the defense for allowing a 52-yard catch-and-run to a running back named LaRod Stephens-Howling for the game-winner in overtime.

Maybe you blame the back judge for penalizing cornerback Orlando Scandrick for an illegal block in the back that negated a long punt return by Bryant in the fourth quarter that might have led to a game-winning field goal sooner.

But you start to wonder about this team as the final month of the season cranks up.

"We don't have a lot of time to be frustrated either," Ratliff said. "Do I like the way we lost the game? Absolutely not, but we're going to learn from it."

Ratliff said the 17-week season is short. One moment you're in September and the next it's December and people are talking about how good or bad you are.

The Cowboys must forge ahead from this loss. If not, their season -- which is so full of promise thanks to their four-game win streak in November -- is lost.

"Any time you lose it's obviously a setback that you have to learn from," Romo said. "You have to use it as a tool to get better and come back and play your best game."

The best game is needed next Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium.

"It doesn't really matter who it is you're playing," cornerback Terence Newman said. "It just so happens where playing a division opponent. Whatever happens, we're looking to get a win first and foremost, that's the most important thing right now."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.