IRVING, Texas (AP) The Cowboys had their roughest day on defense when they lost to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving to raise doubts about their playoff hopes.
They responded with four straight games that were anywhere from good to great on a December winning streak that ended a four-year postseason drought.
''We took a butt-kicking like men,'' said defensive end Jeremy Mincey, ''and came back and retaliated like men.''
There's a similar bounce-back theme for Dallas (12-4) in Sunday's wild-card game against Detroit (11-5) because the Cowboys gave up a franchise-record 480 yards passing to Matt Stafford in a 31-30 loss to the Lions last year.
Not only did Calvin Johnson have 329 yards receiving - the second-most in NFL history - but the Cowboys let the Lions go 80 yards in just 50 seconds in the final minute for the winning touchdown.
Stafford sees something different this year, though.
''They're in all the right spots all the time, it seems to me,'' he said. ''They're playing extremely physical up front and doing a great job of playing with a bunch of passion and getting after the passer and stopping the run on the way.''
Big plays were a problem a year ago for the Dallas defense, which finished last in the league and gave up the first two 600-yard games in franchise history (yes, Detroit was one of them). And big plays were a problem against the Eagles on Thanksgiving, when LeSean McCoy had a 38-yard run to set up one score and Jeremy Maclin had a 58-yard catch to set up another.
Whether that loss was an aberration or a trigger, it's hard to say. But the Cowboys gave up 170 fewer yards in the rematch, held Indianapolis to 1 yard rushing a week later and had a season-high four takeaways in the regular-season finale against Washington.
The big plays were definitely an aberration. The Cowboys gave up 135 big plays passing and rushing last season. That number was 85 this season.
''The ball is critical - turnover ratio, but certainly big plays are a close second to that,'' coach Jason Garrett said. ''If you prevent big plays, it's hard for teams to score against you.''
It wasn't hard for teams to score against the Cowboys a year ago.
''You have to play good, sound, fundamental defense, you have to tackle well,'' Garrett said. ''So we really tried to make an emphasis on being better in those areas, and I think we have made improvement.''
Mincey wasn't around a year ago - he went to the Super Bowl with Denver before coming to the Cowboys as a free agent. He was a steady presence for an improving unit early in the season, and now has emerged as the team leader with six sacks.
While the Cowboys were close to the bottom of the league in sacks, they had nine the last three games of the regular season. They've also forced 10 turnovers in that span, surging to second in the league with 31.
''We're dominating our opponents,'' Mincey said. ''Everybody understands what's going on, understanding what they need to do specifically as an individual and those individuals doing what they need to do in bringing a collective effort because everybody has the same frame of mind, same frequency.''
Linebacker Bruce Carter, who struggled with the switch to the 4-3 defense last year, had two interceptions last week against the Redskins and leads the team with five. Along with Brandon Carr struggling to stay with Johnson, Carter's difficulties were exposed a year against Detroit.
''Bruce has always had a knack for making plays on the ball, whether it's blocking punts or intercepting passes or picking up fumbles,'' Garrett said. ''But I think, like with anybody else, he gets better with experience.''
And the Dallas defense sure did get better after Thanksgiving.
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