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Cowboys vs Panthers: Writer predictions for the Dak Prescott-Sam Darnold showdown

Can the Cowboys defeat the undefeated Panthers?

Dallas Cowboys v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

By the time the final whistles blew on the Cowboys’ 41-21 victory on Monday night, fans were riding about as high as they ever have been during the Mike McCarthy era. Through three successive weeks, they’ve watched their Cowboys come oh-so-close to beating Tom Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champs, lock down Justin Herbert and the Chargers, and then utterly destroy their bitter rival Eagles.

Now, they get to host the undefeated Panthers. There is some debate to be had about how meaningful Carolina’s 3-0 record is; they’ve played two rookie quarterbacks, each making their NFL debut, and Jameis Winston. Nevertheless, this Panthers team can’t be overlooked, even without Christian McCaffrey and Jaycee Horn on the field. It’s hard to overstate how big a 3-1 start to the season would be for the Cowboys, so winning this game is imperative. Do our writers think that’s possible?

When Carolina has the ball

Take away the easy throws

Sam Darnold has had a really promising start to the season for the Panthers, but his numbers are a tad bit deceiving. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady has done a tremendous job of getting Darnold in a rhythm early by running a lot of quick passes to McCaffrey on early downs, knowing that McCaffrey has the ability to turn those dump-off passes into bigger gains. That keeps the Panthers on schedule and doesn’t ask Darnold to save the day, which is when he usually gets himself in trouble.

This week, there is no McCaffrey, and Darnold is facing the league-leader in takeaways. Rookies Chuba Hubbard and Tommy Tremble will likely see quite a few of these quick, early-down passes, but neither is McCaffrey. If the Dallas defense can take away those easy throws, it’ll throw the Panthers off schedule and force Darnold to have to beat them downfield. Then we’ll get to see how much the fourth-year quarterback has really grown.

When Dallas has the ball

Copy and paste the Tampa Bay game plan

One of the reasons the Cowboys moved the ball so well against the Buccaneers’ stout defense in Week 1 was because offensive coordinator Kellen Moore opted not to repeatedly bang the heads of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard into the likes of Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. Instead, they used drags, slants, and screens as an extension of the run game and diverted the action from Tampa Bay’s strength.

The Panthers’ defense operates very similarly to the Buccaneers. Derrick Brown and Morgan Fox are forces on the interior, while Brian Burns and Haason Reddick are versatile edge defenders. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow blitzes at the third-highest rate in the league and, as a result, his defense leads the NFL in both sacks and pressures. They also lead in run stop win rate, presenting a similar challenge to Tampa Bay. If the Cowboys can effectively recreate the magic they had in Week 1, while going against a lesser secondary missing two starters, it could be a banner day for Dak Prescott.

Now onto the predictions from your BTB writers...

Tom Ryle:

The Cowboys met and even exceeded expectations Monday. A lot is being made of the Panthers and their 3-0 record. Dallas hasn’t faced a team like them, many say. Well, Carolina hasn’t faced a team like the Cowboys. Especially the offense under Kellen Moore, with its Skrull like ability to change and attack. And Dan Quinn has the defense cooking in its own right.

With McCaffrey and Horn both out for the Panthers I am looking for another strong win for Dallas, by say 31-20.

Terence Watson:

The Dallas Cowboys, on paper, will be facing one of their toughest tests so far this season going against the undefeated Carolina Panthers. They are an undefeated team but for the Panthers the Cowboys will be their toughest test as well. Without star running back Christian McCaffrey in the backfield and Jaycee Horn on the field this team is considerably weaker, but that’s doesn’t mean they still aren’t dangerous.

If the Cowboys take this team lightly they will fall, they must respect the running game with Chuba Hubbard starting and also respect the receivers that are quick and have big play ability. They will have to get another big game from their defense and build on their recent success. On offense the Cowboys need to continue with their balanced attack the way the did against the Eagles last week. If they can do that then the Panthers defense won’t have the ability to slow them down.

Prediction: Cowboys 34, Panthers 20.

Justin Morris:

The Panthers’ predatory reign ends here. They’ve played a stellar brand of football on both ends as they’ve carved out an undefeated record, but they haven’t seen a team like Dallas yet. Dan Quinn’s defense has been clicking on all cylinders, and its combination of disguises and pressures will prove to be too much for Sam Darnold. And don’t look now, but Dak Prescott could be very well on his way to an MVP nod. Look for Zeke and Pollard to continue to split carries for success, and Dak to throw at least two TDs.

Dallas wins 31-21.

Matt Holleran:

Much like last week, I think this is a game where the Cowboys come out and clearly establish they are the better team. Without Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers are going to have to rely heavily on Sam Darnold throwing the football. I think that plays perfectly into what the Cowboys want to do on defense, and that’s continue to take the football away. I think Dallas comes out and picks Sam Darnold twice on D, and Dak Prescott carries the offense throwing three touchdown passes. I think this game will remain close until the third quarter when the Cowboys start to pull away.

Give me the Cowboys, 30-20.

Darreck Kirby:

The Panthers are 3-0, yes, but they’ve largely been untested by their early schedule—beating the Jets, Saints, and Texans. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have faced a significantly stronger schedule and are a last-second field goal away from 3-0.

Dallas‘ offense has shown itself to be dynamic along the way. In Week 1, it slung the ball with tremendous frequency and efficiency, only to then shift to a more balanced attack powered by its running back stable. The Panthers defensive line has impressed early, but Dallas has shown great improvement in its run blocking from 2020. Should Carolina limit the ground game as the Bucs were able in Week 1, Dallas will be prepared to air it out once more. The biggest difference is the absence of Christian McCaffrey for the Panthers offense. Without their biggest weapon, it’s hard to see Carolina keeping up with the Cowboys offense.

Dallas wins this one fairly comfortably, 31-17.

Aidan Davis:

This is a “prove it” game for both teams. The Panthers are looking to prove that they are a legitimate contender despite facing weaker opponents, while the Cowboys want to prove they are a team that commands respect in the NFC. For Dak and the offense, the game plan will be similar to week one. The Carolina defensive line is not only dominant against the run, but they are able to get to the quarterback quickly. Prescott could throw for 50 or more times in this one, and Dallas needs to hope that he can shoulder the burden once again.

For the Cowboys defense, they need to be able to stop the run early. The Panthers rely on a heavy rushing attack, paired with passes close to the line of scrimmage to avoid any mistakes. If Dallas is able to prevent Carolina from establishing the run, they will force Sam Darnold into long-yardage conversions situations. While Darnold has looked like an above average quarterback through three weeks, his career has proved he is prone to mistakes. Considering Dak has proved that he is a quarterback that can carry a team, paired with McCaffrey’s injury making it easier for the Cowboys to stop the run, the Cowboys should be able to pull this one out.

Cowboys 28, Carolina, 23

Tony Catalina:

Another week into the season, and another test for this Cowboys football team. The Cowboys look to take care of business versus an undefeated Panthers team who, if we are being honest, we are all still trying to figure out if they are contenders or pretenders. There’s no doubt that the Panthers possess some talent, and their defense is in fact ranked the best in the league so far in this young season.

But the fact remains the Panthers will be playing without their unquestioned best player in Christian McCaffrey, and their defense has not squared off versus an offense of Dallas caliber yet. Dallas should be able to find ways to move the ball even though their defense is one to be respected. The deficiencies in their defense are in the secondary, and I would look for Dak and Kellen Moore to exploit that. Ultimately I think this game will be competitive as most of the Cowboys games typically are, however the better team finds a way to win in the end, and that team is the Dallas Cowboys.

Cowboys 24 Panthers 16

Brian Martin:

The Carolina Panthers are 3-0, but their undefeated record is a bit misleading. They haven’t faced nearly the same level of competition as the Dallas Cowboys have, so all of the numbers people are throwing out there trying to convince you they have a chance this week should be taken with a grain of salt. Carolina’s defense may be as good as advertised, but the teams they’ve played against so for this season (Jets, Saints, Texans) aren’t anywhere near as dangerous as the Cowboys. Add in the fact Dallas’ defense is playing surprisingly well right now and I’ll go ahead and predict another easy win for America’s Team.

Score prediction: 38-20, Cowboys

Danny Phantom:

Every year there are teams emerging from nowhere to be surprise contenders. The Panthers might be one of those teams this season. They have a talented defense that is fast to the ball and this could create some challenges for Dak and company. On the other side of the ball, I don’t find their offense very threatening and expect the Cowboys’ defense to show up yet again. This one might be frustrating at times, but I’m taking the good guys in a defensive battle.

Cowboys 23, Panthers 17.

David Howman:

I may be in the minority here, but I just don’t see this one being particularly close. The Panthers are the biggest frauds in the NFL right now, in my opinion. They’ve beaten up on two rookie quarterbacks, each making their first ever start, and beat a Saints team that was missing almost half of their coaching staff due to COVID-19.

More than that, Sam Darnold is still Sam Darnold and he won’t have McCaffrey to rely on this week. The defense has a good pass rush but the secondary has been leaving things open behind that front; they’ve just been lucky enough to not face a quarterback who can handle pressure. That changes this week. I think Dak Prescott will make easy work of this defense, and Darnold won’t be able to keep up at all.

Cowboys 38, Panthers 19

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