December doldrums seemingly worse

IRVING, Texas -- Forget about the Dallas Cowboys' record in December under Wade Phillips and any other coach who has cashed a check from owner Jerry Jones.

This season's Cowboys are in trouble after Sunday's 20-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Dallas has fallen out of first place in the NFC East -- one game behind the Philadelphia Eagles with three games to play.

Issues run deep. Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware is injured, kicker Nick Folk has a confidence problem, and the undefeated New Orleans Saints are next on a demanding schedule to finish the season.

Ware could miss two weeks with a sprained neck suffered when his head hit the hip of Chargers right tackle Brandyn Dombrowski on Sunday. Ware, the Cowboys' leader in sacks and quarterback pressures, had five sacks in four games last December and will be missed.

If he doesn't return until the regular-season finale against the Eagles, it might be too late to save the season.

"This is obviously crunch time for us right now," inside linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We're not performing at a high level when it comes to making the crucial plays in the game. We're not coming up with those."

Dallas has less than a week to solve its issues heading into a game against undefeated New Orleans (13-0) on Saturday night.

"We know what we have ahead of us as far as going down to New Orleans and playing against the Saints," Jones said. "But there's no doubt in my mind that when we step out of here, we'll have a good week and we'll be down there competing to play."

The Cowboys haven't had a problem competing -- they've lost the last two games by a combined 10 points. The issue is finishing.

"We lost those two. That's where we are," Phillips said. "There's no one more disappointed than I am that we didn't win those games and that I didn't do a good enough job to help win those games. But the season's not over, and we are going to go in with the same attitude we had and hopefully a little better."

After swapping holders to quarterback Tony Romo last week, there could be another change in the kicking game this week. Folk has missed six of his last 10 field goal attempts -- including at least one miss in each of the last five games -- and Phillips said the team would explore its options at the position.

A source told ESPNDallas.com on Monday that the Cowboys would stay in-house if a change were to be made, making rookie David Buehler the leading candidate.

If the playoffs started today, the Cowboys would be the sixth seed and would visit the Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs.

But their hold on that spot is very tenuous. Dallas (8-5) would lose a tiebreaker to the Giants (7-6) because it lost both regular-season games to New York. Green Bay (9-4) owns a tiebreaker over the Cowboys by virtue of a 17-7 win on Nov. 15. The Cowboys hold an edge over Atlanta (6-7) because of a win at Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 25.

"I can't speak for everybody out there," cornerback Terence Newman said. "I'm confident in what we can do. I think we have a lot of guys that are confident. We got to see where we're headed. We've got games left. It's not over.

"We still got an opportunity to do what we set out to do at the beginning of the season."

Several players talked about Jones' message after the loss to the Chargers, and that they understood what the owner had to say.

"He was just telling us about some of his downs that he had in the key point of life," Newman said. "Everybody has ups and downs, it depends on what you do with those things. He talked about he had an opportunity to buy the team and some of the things he went through. It's kind of similar to what we're going through now. He was trying to put this season in perspective."

Added outside linebacker Anthony Spencer: "You're going to have adversity in this game, but it's about how you respond to it. That was his message to us, and we have to respond."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.