IRVING, Texas—The Dallas Cowboys returned from their bye looking like a new team.
Well, at least like the team they expected to be.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was back from high ankle sprain, putting the key members of their secondary on the field together Monday for the first time since early August. The offense was nearly back to full strength, too, with receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant both running routes for Tony Romo for the first time since the opening week.
"It's definitely exciting to see what everybody's going to do now that everybody's back," said Alan Ball, who has started once and played plenty but now slips back to being the fourth cornerback. "I think everybody is going to do just fine getting back in and getting into our system."
The Cowboys were counting on a cornerback trio of Mike Jenkins, Terence Newman and Scandrick this season. Incumbent starters Jenkins and Newman missed the entire preseason with injuries, then Jenkins returned for the opener but Newman didn't make it back until the third game. Scandrick only played in the opener.
The only key defensive player still missing is defensive end Jason Hatcher, who is battling a strained calf. Backup safety Danny McCray also was out with an ankle problem.
Scandrick's return is especially important this week because he covers the slot receiver, and New England has one of the best in Wes Welker.
"I feel like I'm in condition," Scandrick said. "As far as where I do think I might be off a little bit right now is play recognition, but by Sunday, with watching film throughout the week, I'll be ready to go."
Austin aggravated a hamstring injury at the end of regulation in the second game and has missed the last two. Bryant missed that game with a thigh problem. He's played both games since, but has been limited in practices.
Romo has a cracked rib that should be close to healed. The only guys on offense still banged up are fullback Tony Fiammetta (hamstring) and guard Derrick Dockery (broken leg, sprained knee ligament).
"You guys have heard me say this before -- injuries are a part of the game," coach Jason Garrett said, launching into a discourse on the importance of backup players taking advantage of their opportunity. "Having said all of that, it's better to have your starters back out there practicing and moving toward playing in the game on Sunday."
Dallas (2-2) faces quite a challenge Sunday by going on the road to play Tom Brady, Welker and the New England Patriots, winners of 19 straight games at home. Brady has actually won 30 straight in Foxborough, Mass., and New England (4-1) is coming off a 30-21 victory over the Jets, who beat the Cowboys in the opener.
"We're probably going to get killed. They're the greatest team to ever play football. We're going in there to try to hold our own," defensive end Marcus Spears said, trying to keep a straight face. "Naw. We're going in there to beat them. We understand the type of success they've had. ...
"Getting to the serious side of it, we just got to go to work and know as much as possible what these guys are doing and try to bring a good game plan against them and then put it together on Sunday."
Dallas had as good of a bye weekend as it could've hoped for. While players got refreshed, their division foes who played -- the Giants and Eagles -- both lost.
Garrett insisted it is way too early to be paying attention to the standings, that the only thing players should focus on is getting ready for the next practice and for the Patriots. His smile showed otherwise.
"We have many challenges ahead," he said. "We have 12 more football games to play. That's a lifetime. We're going to focus on being as good as we can be each day and hopefully get ourselves ready to play the Patriots."
Notes: The Cowboys were so banged up two weeks ago that they skipped wearing pads on Wednesday. They didn't do so last week either, of course, because of the bye. Garrett said players will be suited up this Wednesday, and the next several. "We'd like to get back into the rhythm of practicing in full pads on Wednesdays," he said. ... Another practice change: A scoreboard. It was installed during by the week to help make situational work more realistic. They had a scoreboard during training camp at the Alamodome and Cowboys Stadium. "We've been doing it with (equipment manager) Bucky Buchanan using a stopwatch," Garrett said. "We think it's valuable in recreating and simulating the game when you have that scoreboard, and you have the time that everybody can see and you understand what the situation is as concretely as possible."