IRVING, Texas (AP) Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was optimistic enough after a loss in Baltimore to say his team could evolve into a Super Bowl contender ``not next year - this year.''
His tune and tone changed a bit when the Cowboys lost star linebacker Sean Lee to a season-ending toe injury this week. He all but declared the team's leading tackler irreplaceable.
``That's a setback,'' Jones said. ``The old adage that it gives someone else a chance to show what they've got doesn't necessarily apply here because he's a proven difference-maker out there.''
Jones said all this with the Cowboys facing one of their biggest games of the year on Sunday. The NFC East-leading Giants will be in town, boasting the NFL's second-rated offense and eager to avenge a season-opening loss to Dallas.
The Cowboys also have to play the second straight game without their best running back, DeMarco Murray. The team isn't saying when Murray will return from a foot injury sustained in the Baltimore game two weeks ago, although Jones said he didn't think it would be long-term.
``I've said all along I think this team has an opportunity to be a contender, but the one exception that I made was ... sitting as we're sitting right now health-wise, injury can make a difference and does in the NFL,'' said Jones, whose 90-year-old mother, Arminta Jones, died this week.
Lee sustained ligament damage in his right big toe in last weekend's 19-14 win at Carolina, and surgery is scheduled for next week. He said he will be sidelined three to four months but should be healthy by February - in time for offseason workouts.
Coach Jason Garrett and his teammates expect Lee to be an active participant in practice and on game day, and the third-year pro out of Penn State indicated as much Thursday.
``You have to be positive because if you're negative you're not going to get any better,'' said Lee, who missed a year in college with a knee injury and sat out part of last season with a dislocated wrist before finishing the season in a cast. ``As frustrating as it is, there's no getting around it.''
Bruce Carter will take over Lee's spot and the defensive play-calling for the Cowboys, while Dan Connor, Lee's close friend and former Penn State teammate, will slide into Carter's spot. Connor signed as a free agent after four years at Carolina.
``I think everybody is going to miss him,'' Carter said. ``He really took the job serious. That's something I've got to step up as a player for myself. I don't want to let those other guys down.''