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Reality schools learning Cowboys

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Dallas Cowboys are rebuilding. People inside the organization won't say it in public, but what team would?

In theory, a true contender would have won a game like the one on Sunday afternoon against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

A Cowboys team in transition forced four turnovers and ended the Patriots' streak of averaging 30 points or more at 13 games but ultimately came up small when it was time to win.

It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's just the reality the franchise must accept right now. While headed in the right direction, this team is not ready for prime time.

Head coach Jason Garrett went conservative with a lead in the closing minute of the game, asking Rob Ryan's defense to stop a Hall of Fame quarterback after limiting him for almost four quarters.

The man who signs off on all things Cowboys, Jerry Jones, said it simply after a 20-16 loss: "We were wrong. We bet he couldn't take that ball the length of the field, and he did so."

The fourth-quarter game-winning drive was a familiar outcome -- the 32nd of Brady's career.

"Yeah, we're standing here like we are because we thought we could pull another stop," Jones said. "That's asking a lot of this defense to do another stop."

The reality is the Cowboys are a .500 team, a team that isn't close to elite. They will win their share of close games, maybe even a few they shouldn't. But they will also lose some games they shouldn't, as they did two weeks ago in blowing a 24-3 lead at home against the Detroit Lions.

Rebuilding teams aren't consistent until their young players learn how to win.

"I don't know about young guys, old guys … it doesn't matter, it's all a football team," cornerback Terence Newman said. "That's what it is."

The bulk of these players are still learning. Their head coach is learning, too. The Cowboys' past 10 games under Garrett have been decided by fewer than seven points. They are 5-5 in those games.

"Anytime you're about within three points in the NFL you're going to play about .500, and that's what we're playing about, .500," Jones said.

While Garrett continues to learn on the job, he has to figure out who he can trust when the game is on the line. It was clear Sunday that Garrett doesn't trust Tony Romo as much as he has in previous games. Maybe all the turnovers finally have Garrett worrying about his quarterback. But Garrett can't let that have such a profound effect on his in-game strategy.

On three possessions inside the red zone, Garrett's playcalling went haywire.

Other than Romo's early TD pass to tight end Jason Witten, it was all underneath routes and short passes. Nothing into the end zone.

That conservative approach shouldn't surprise anyone because when teams are rebuilding, they are just trying to survive.

The Cowboys should have learned from their victory over the 49ers in Week 2, when Jim Harbaugh's conservative approach allowed the Cowboys to steal a victory.

In the sloppy and unpredictable NFC East, the Cowboys are 2-3, at the bottom half of the division and trying to figure out how to find that consistency.

"We lost a close one, and in fact when you lose you've got to move on," defensive end Kenyon Coleman said. "We've got to dissect the film look and look at our next opponent."

Next is St. Louis, winless on the season and trying to figure out what it must do to stop its bleeding. The Cowboys season isn't lost just yet. If they knock off the Rams -- and they certainly should -- they'll be back to .500 and in the hunt for the playoffs. A trip to Philadelphia in two weeks could tell us a lot more about how much this Cowboys team is learning.

The Cowboys played well Sunday afternoon but didn't make the plays necessary to win. It's not the end of the world.

They are not ready to beat teams like the Patriots just yet. But they, along with their head coach, have the right attitude. They aren't willing to accept defeat.

"It isn't about a moral victory," Garrett said. "It's about coming up here and trying to win, and then you build on the positive things that we did and then clean up the negatives and then go onto the next week."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.