They won’t be facing the defending Super Bowl champions in a revenge game every week.
They won’t always be able to draw inspiration from a teammate who decided to play despite having suffered a serious spleen injury.
They can’t commit 13 penalties and expect to win every week. Or allow an opponent on the ropes to mount a late comeback.
But what the Dallas Cowboys accomplished in Wednesday night’s season opener against the New York Giants bodes well for the future.
To gain confidence this season can be different from the previous 16 that ended without a Lombardi Trophy, the Cowboys needed to avenge the devastating 17-point loss to New York that ended their 2011 campaign. Dallas did just that with a 24-17 road victory.
"We all knew we were the underdogs," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in his team’s locker room afterward. "We certainly weren’t proud of the last time we were up here seven months ago. I felt like I never left the halls of this stadium when we came back in here today.
"It is really special. Our team should really be able to build and be inspired to grab this win. They earned it."
New York parlayed its victory over Dallas in the 2011 regular-season finale into a Super Bowl run. By that point, the Cowboys roster was decimated by injuries and the pass defense was leaky.
Dallas is healthier now and has three new starters in the secondary. Both elements factored into Wednesday night’s win.
Running back DeMarco Murray, who was on injured reserve the last time Dallas faced New York, gashed the Giants for 131 yards on 20 carries. Tony Romo, whose quarterbacking performance in the last Giants-Cowboys matchup was negatively affected by a badly bruised hand, lit up New York’s secondary for 307 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-29 passing.
Kevin Ogletree proved he could fill the void as Dallas’ third wide receiver created by the free-agent departure of Laurent Robinson to Jacksonville. Ogletree had a career-best eight catches for 114 yards.
Romo’s usual favorite target was a relative non-factor with two receptions, but tight end Jason Witten contributed just by being on the field. Although listed as doubtful entering the game because of the lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason opener, Witten gutted it out and started.
Jones compared Witten to the lead character in the classic movie “El Cid” — "when they put him in the saddle and ran him down the beach." Defensive end Jason Hatcher said seeing Witten play "gave me extra juice."
"I knew he was in pain," Hatcher said. "But he loves his teammates and wanted to be out there with us."
Camaraderie goes a long way toward building a championship team. So do clutch plays during times of adversity.
When Giants linebacker Michael Boley was returning a second-quarter Romo interception toward the Cowboys’ end zone, Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith saved the score by hustling to make a horse-collar tackle (albeit an illegal one that drew a flag). Motivated by the effort, Dallas held New York to a field goal despite facing first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Hatcher described the stand as "taking the air" out of the Giants offense. By the time New York scored in the third quarter, the Cowboys had opened a 14-3 lead.
Manning had butchered the Cowboys’ defense in their previous six meetings, but a revamped secondary featuring cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and strong safety Barry Church helped prevent a repeat. Manning was held to a modest 213 yards on 21-of-32 passing and sacked three times.
Manning also didn’t have the chance to work his customary fourth-quarter magic. Ogletree, matched against a reserve cornerback (Justin Tryon) forced onto the field because of an injury to stop-gap starter Michael Coe, caught a 13-yard pass on a third-and-10 just before the two-minute warning. That allowed Jones, who had promised during the preseason that Dallas would "beat the Giants’ asses," to breathe a sigh of relief as the Cowboys ran out the clock.
"What I didn’t say and didn’t know is if this team would have the courage to play a quality team like that on the road and stay in it and win a ballgame," Jones said. "I really was concerned late in the game that we were going to fool around and let them get back in it. But this bunch persevered."
Jones and the Cowboys pointed out that this was only one game. Asked how much beating New York will carry over going forward, Romo said, "It’s a brand new week and a brand new team. It will be a new challenge. This game will have no meaning on the next one."
But now having tangible proof that 2012 can be a new year will make a difference heading into a Sept. 16 matchup at Seattle — and beyond.