After the stinging defeat to the Baltimore Ravens last week, the Cowboys are looking at the Panthers on the road. This game will prove to be huge, as a win will put them just a couple games away from the NFC East crown, but a loss will be enough to prove that the franchise does not have the winning formula. I seriously think this has implications on Jason Garrett as well: if the Cowboys lose, I expect Garrett to get fired before the Giants game. I loved Garrett when he stepped on the scene, cut him a break over last year, tolerated him the first 3 games, doubted him week 4, and want him replaced ASAP now, after the clock management skills he showed against Baltimore. This is a must-win for Dallas: dropping to 2-4 with the Giants, Philly(2x), Atlanta, and Pittsburgh still coming will basically shut the door on this season. I think Dallas has the players to win, and more. Take a look to see how I see this game playing out:
Felix Jones vs Luke Keuchly
It's been a while since Jones has been seen as a major factor in a game, huh? Well, we might have been frustrated at first, but Jones (and a little bit of Tanner/Dunbar) showed us that we have reliable depth in the RB field, and have a valuable backup in Jones. Jones will once again be handling starting duty. He had an opportunity last week, and he took full advantage. He showed up and played great football, taking that opportunity by the balls and never letting go. Opportunity had no choice but to submit. Although I see Keuchly breeding into an elite LB, he isn't there yet. He is pretty much a Sean Lee for the Panthers (except Lee is better, more experienced, and already elite) in that he is athletic, fast and smart. He may rack up tackles, but against a fast, experienced RB that has a dangerous tip-toe and cut move, Keuchly loses as he realizes he needs to loosen his ankles a bit when playing in the big league.
Dez Bryant came off a big game last week. While he may only be remembered (by only non Cowboys fans) as the guy who dropped the two point conversion, you can't deny he had a great stat line (15 targets, 13 rec, 95 yards, 2 TD). Josh Norman has showed that the only reason he starts is cause Carolina has no one else. He is inexperienced, and just not that good, considering he's a rookie. Chris Gamble may give one of our receivers something to think about, but I doubt Norman has a very fun day. I see Dez lining up against Norman, as the Panthers will most likely want a more experienced corner on the experienced receiver. Either way, this is a mismatch that I see the Cowboys exploiting a great deal.
Cowboys Game Plan: The Cowboys have almost every advantage here: they can stop the pass attack with a secondary (I really, really think their first pick will come here), they have the LB's in Carter and Lee to keep the run game in check, Spencer, Ware, Lee and Carter are all athletic enough to limit the damage Newton can do with his feet, they have a good wideout crew that can bite on this weak secondary. I think Dallas will want to come out and really let Cam do his thing. I see the Cowboys shutting down the pass and keeping the Panthers at a running team. If they can do that, the Panthers may hold the ball, but hopefully won't be able to move the ball quickly when they need to or pass enough to score more. That way, when forcing the run, the Cowboys have the ability to pass and create more on offense than Carolina.
Panther Game Plan: The Panthers are gonna have their hands full with the Cowboys. What the Panthers need to do is take advantage of their run versatility, and their biggest weapon, Steve Smith. They want to put Smith, who is a terrific receiver on Claiborne, the newbie. They will also have to run the ball alot, so using fresh legs by splitting the runs between Newton and their two headed tailback attack should keep their offense going. On defense, they need to get in Romo's face, or else the secondary will get torched. They have to manhandle up front and push past a weak offensive line.
Quarter by Quarter
Q1 The Cowboys offensive line is fresh and gets to work quickly. Romo is already slicing up this secondary, and the Panthers are getting eaten up. They do enough to compete, but allow Dallas to score early. Within the first 10 minutes, Dallas is already up 7-0. Carolina is quickly in punt formation and Dallas is looking good. First quarter ends with Dallas up 7-0.
Q2 The Cowboys glide inside the Panthers 30, looking to take a commanding 14-0 lead. They try running it, but the offensive line is weak again, and two runs are not enough for a first down. On 3rd, Romo take a sideline shot into the endzone, which is incomplete. They could get more, but after a field goal Dallas has a comfortable 10-0 lead. Cam comes out wanting to put points on the board. After a couple third down conversions, he gets pressured and makes a bad throw, which is intercepted by the Cowboys back 4 for the first time this year. Dallas capitalizes and gets the ball withing the 30 again. However, Romo's offensive line abandons him and once again, all the get is a field goal, but take a good 13-0 lead. Right before halftime, the Panthers manage to get a field goal in, so they can go into halftime with some points. End of second: 13-3, Dallas leads.
Q3 The Panthers come out with a feisty attitude in the third and manage a TD. The crowd is crazy, after a 13 point deficit has quickly been cut to just a 3 point trial. Dallas came out of the locker room sluggish, but get their minds back on track. They want those seven points back and get just that with another TD to take a 20-10 lead. The Panthers are deflated and don't score for the rest of the quarter. End of 3rd: 20-10, Dallas leads.
Q4 The Panthers don their game faces again, as they get quickly in field goal range to knock one down for 3. They are just down by a TD. The defense however, fails them as the Cowboys earn those 3 points back. The Panthers can do nothing with the ball, and turn it over. Dallas does not take advantage of the Golden opportunity, and turns it back over, halfway through the 4th. Cam takes advantage of the momentum and gets in past a stunned defense to put up 7 points on the board. With just a few games left in the fourth, the Cowboys find themselves with just a 3 point lead, facing a team ready to win. Romo is under immense pressure this time, and after a short run, sack, and incomplete pass, the Panther force a 3 and out. The crowd is roaring. The Panthers are within striking distance. The Cowboys D shows up though and forces a game tying field goal, with just a minute or so left in the game. It is tied 23-23, after the Cowboys failed to hold onto a 13-0 lead earlier on in the game. But the Boys will not lose: Romo make some plays and gets the Boys right outside field goal range, with a timeout and about 10-15 seconds left. He is able to find Miles Austin for a healthy gain and set up a field goal. Dan Bailey comes out to put the final points on the board en route to a 26-23 road win for Dallas against the Panthers.
Final Score: 26-23 Dallas
Romo: 26/34 280 yards, 2 TD, 0INT
Jones: 16 rush, 75 yards, 2 rec, 20 yards
Bryant: 7 rec, 105 yards, 1 TD
Austin: 4 rec, 60 yards, 1TD
Witten: 8 rec, 75 yards
Tanner/Dunbar: 5 rush, 20 yards
Ware: 5 tackles, 1 sack
Lee: 12 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
Bruce Carter: 7 tackles, 1 Forced Fumble
Carr: 2 tackles, 1 INT
Newton: 15/25, 150 yards, 1TD, 1INT, 6 rush, 25 yards
Williams: 20 rush, 80 yards, 1TD, 1 Fumble
Stewart: 10 rush, 40 yards
Smith: 6 rec, 60 yards, 1TD
LaFell: 3 rec, 30 yards
Keuchly: 9 tackles