IRVING, TEXAS >> Even safety Barry Church felt a boost from the return of Tony Romo as the Dallas Cowboys ended a losing streak that covered all seven games their Pro Bowl quarterback missed.
And maybe it's not a coincidence that a defense struggling to make big plays while Romo sat with a broken left collarbone got its first touchdown of the season on Rolando McClain's interception return for the first points in a 24-14 win at Miami on Sunday.
This much is true as Dallas (3-7) prepares to face unbeaten Carolina at home on Thanksgiving: The Cowboys can say they haven't lost a game that Romo started this year.
"I just feel like we had one of our best players back in Romo," Church said after Dallas improved to 3-0 in Romo starts. "That had a heck of a lot of difference. So, our defense was very hungry, but Romo was out there. He did a heck of a job. I'm just glad to have him back."
The Cowboys are still alive because the NFC East is mediocre. The New York Giants (5-5) lead the division by a game over Washington and Philadelphia, with both those teams getting blown out while Dallas was winning for the first time in two months.
The problem for the defending NFC East champion is the long losing streak means the playoffs have basically started. And not only are the Panthers (10-0) visiting four days after a long-awaited victory, but the Cowboys face December road games against Green Bay and Buffalo.
"It feels good. At the same time we have to work," Dez Bryant said after his 50th touchdown catch from Romo, topping the franchise record of 49 connections between Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. "Nobody is going to be jumping for joy around here."
But the Cowboys were clearly a different team with Romo after Brandon Weeden went 0-3 and Matt Cassel finished 0-4 filling in for him.
Case in point, the drive after the Dolphins wiped out a 14-0 deficit and pulled even with a touchdown in the third quarter. Romo completed all four of his passes, the last a 16-yarder to Bryant in the end zone when he threw well out in front of his All-Pro receiver and between a pair of defenders on a crossing route.
It was just the kind of precise downfield throw the Cowboys lacked with Romo sidelined, and helped overcome two interceptions on bad decisions with pressure coming.
"There are a couple of plays he would like to have back, but again, his demeanor was outstanding and he responded to the adversity throughout the game," said coach Jason Garrett, who tied Jimmy Johnson for second with 44 victories behind Tom Landry. "I think the guys really feed off of that."
Now comes the tricky part: the short week for a 35-year-old quarterback who must maintain his surgically repaired back and is likely to be sore after getting knocked around a few times by Miami's defensive line.
Romo's worst game last year was a Thanksgiving loss to Philadelphia, and he admitted that he wasn't at his best physically without the normal rest and rehab for his back. This time, however, he doesn't have two months of wear and tear since he's been sitting.
"Oh, I don't know," Romo said when asked about the challenge of getting ready on a short week with Carolina looming. "It could be fun."
Oddsmakers must agree. According to pregame.com, the Cowboys were a one-point favorite over the Panthers on Monday after opening as a one-point underdog. Surely Romo's return has everything to do with that anomaly.
"I've said it all week, we're excited to have him back," tight end Jason Witten said. "He brings great energy. He's the leader of our team. He gets us into great looks. He's a competitor. He makes a lot of plays. I thought you saw him do that at his best."
Even the defense said it made a difference.