Bill Parcells waited 12 weeks to tell the world what he told his team months ago.
"We're not losers anymore," he rasped Sunday, his voice almost gone after a 24-20 victory over Carolina. "We're something else. Our record makes us something else."
The victory guaranteed the surprising Cowboys (8-3) of at least a .500 record for the first time in four seasons. They're reaching much higher, though, especially with the way they were able to hold off the NFL's hottest fourth-quarter team. The Panthers (8-3) -- nicknamed the Cardiac Cats -- sauntered into Texas Stadium with four fourth-quarter comebacks and a 6-0 record in games decided by three points or fewer.
The Cowboys, Panthers, St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles are tied for the best record in the NFC. Philadelphia, which lost at Dallas last month, plays host in a Dec. 7 rematch.
It's not as if the Cowboys have much time to savor their perch. They have only three days to prepare for their traditional Thanksgiving game, this year against Miami. For the Cowboys, the cushion between their last play Sunday and kickoff Thursday is less than 96 hours. It's even shorter for the Dolphins, who played Washington in the Sunday night game.
That's why Parcells told his players needing treatment for injuries to seek it immediately after the game instead of waiting until this morning. Every minute counts.
"He'll be in [the training room] to make sure we do it too," defensive end Greg Ellis said. "That's just the kind of coach he is."
Parcells, hired in January in the wake of three consecutive 5-11 seasons, called it "by far the best win I've had in Dallas."
"This was a pivotal game for us," he said. "When you start getting beat in the second half of the season, it's hard to come back. I think we really have a chance to do something. Our team took a big step forward."
And, for the first time in five weeks, so did the Dallas offense. In their previous four games, the Cowboys scored 20 points, a miserable stretch that included shutout losses at New England and Tampa Bay. No team in NFL history has won its division after having been shut out twice in a season, and only seven teams have made the playoffs that way.
"Good teams are going to score points, you have to know that as a player," quarterback Quincy Carter said. "Our defense has carried us for a while. It was important for us to come out and give our defense a chance."
The Cowboys, who never trailed, took a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter when, on third and one at the Carolina 16, Carter handed off to Richie Anderson, who pitched to Aveion Cason. By the time the Panthers gathered their wits, Cason had squirted untouched into the end zone.
What followed were a slew of blown chances -- two field-goal tries by the Cowboys; a missed field-goal try and botched fake punt by the Panthers -- and finally a Carolina field goal with 3:51 remaining that trimmed the Cowboy lead to four points. But the Panthers never got the ball back. Carter & Co., so inept over the previous four games, got two first downs to run out the clock.
It was by no means a virtuoso performance by the Dallas offense. The top-ranked Cowboy defense, annoyed by the talk that its front four was second-best in this matchup, held the Panthers to 244 yards, 95 shy of their average, and essentially took bruising running back Stephen Davis out of the game.
The NFL's third-leading rusher, who finished with 59 yards in 26 carries, gained 18 yards in nine carries after halftime.
"That was the key to the whole game," defensive tackle La'Roi Glover said. "They hit us with a couple of 10-yard plays, but after that we decided to shut them down for the rest of the game."
Apparently, the Cowboy secondary didn't get the memo. That group had some problems, especially when the safeties rolled up close to the line of scrimmage and left the cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage. The Cowboys were flagged for pass interference three times -- twice in the end zone and once on their nine -- mistakes that the Panthers turned into 17 points.
Carolina had more than its share of miscues, too, among them two 15-yard facemask penalties, a pass-interference flag on cornerback Terry Cousin, who got ahold of the back of Terry Glenn's pants and nearly pulled them down.
Parcells, for one, wasn't going to let the satisfaction on this victory put his team in a compromising position.
"By 6 o'clock tonight I'll have forgotten all about today and this win," he said. "I guarantee you I'll be sitting at my desk watching film and wondering how we won the game."
Well, the good mood was fun while it lasted.