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Cowboys stake claim to legitimacy with 36-28 win over Panthers

The win streak is now at three for Dallas.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys
Some thought he wasn’t able to run the ball effectively any more.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys climbed to 3-1 with their 36-28 win over the Carolina Panthers. More than just a win, it was evidence that this Dallas team may be able to do more than just win the NFC East.

After a first half that saw the Cowboys down by a point, Dallas blew things open in the third quarter. Touchdown passes to Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson, a defense that figured out how to stop Sam Darnold on third down, and the regularly scheduled Trevon Diggs interceptions, his fourth and fifth of the year, all combined to put 20 points on the board in the third quarter and drain the drama from things. It was an offensive game that flipped the script a bit, as the Cowboys used the run to get into the Panthers’ end of the field and then Dak Prescott would throw for points. Ezekiel Elliott would be well over 100 yards by the end of the third quarter. And though they had trouble stopping Sam Darnold and his offense early in the game, they became something of a brick wall in that third period.

For the second week in a row, the final score may not have been indicative of just how dominant the Cowboys were, at least in the second half. Not only did they put up so many points against a highly-regarded defense, they did so with more rushing yards than passing. The staff even started pulling defensive starters very early in the fourth quarter after they had built a 22-point lead. They were content to let the Panthers work down the field while eating clock. It was a bit questionable and things got a little dicey when they got a couple of touchdowns and cut the lead to eight. But Carolina was also out of timeouts, and the cautious approach didn’t end up hurting Dallas.

One thing that Kellen Moore has been doing well is the script for the early part of the game. Things got off to a rough start as a near sack and a batted ball contributed to the Cowboys going three and out after receiving the opening kickoff. But the defense got the ball back after their own three and out stand, including a big sack from Randy Gregory. Things started to click with an eighteen-yard burst from Ezekiel Elliott. A penalty set up a first and 20, then disaster almost happened as Prescott could not handle a bad snap from Tyler Biadasz, but he calmly picked it up and scrambled for 15 yards. With only one pass completion to Dalton Schultz along the way, Dallas ran the ball down the throats of the Panthers’ defense, capping things with a one-yard plunge by Elliott.

Carolina responded with a drive of their own, with big runs and a spectacular catch by D.J. Moore where he managed to not go down and got 29 yards. Sam Darnold would cap things with a one-yard option run to tie things up.

Schultz twice almost was the cause of disaster on the next series for the Cowboys as the ball came lose on two catches. Once he was clearly down, but on the second Dallas dodged a bullet as the officials called forward progress stopped despite the ball clearly coming out as he was hit. After that gift, the Cowboys moved quickly to the end zone, with Blake Jarwin showing up for an easy 18-yard touchdown. Then a Panthers penalty on the extra point gave Dallas a chance to go for two from the one-yard line. But Prescott’s pass to Schultz was a little behind him and the ball did not quite break the plane before his knee was down and the attempt failed, leading to a 13-7 lead early in the second quarter. Missed extra points often come back to haunt teams, and this one led to a one-point deficit as the Panthers drove the length of the field on their next possession to take the lead. The coaching staff made what turned out to be a bad decision in declining a facemask penalty on the offense against Gregory to try and stop them on 3rd-and-12 in their own end of the field. Darnold found Robby Anderson to keep things alive for the eventual touchdown.

One narrative that has sprung up about Prescott is that he is no longer a threat to run the ball. That was pretty effectively shattered in the first quarter as he had 36 yards on two carries, with a long of 21. Both were instrumental in keeping drives alive and showed that, while he is being very smart about protecting himself, he is not at all afraid to take off. And his legs still work quite well.

Unfortunately, Darnold was even more effective, adding a second rushing touchdown late in the game as well as evading what looked like a certain sack by Chauncey Golston for another big gain. Both the defenses were under-performing their reputations before the game. The Cowboys gave up far too many third-down conversions early, especially long ones. The Panthers came into the game only allowing 45 yards per game on the ground, but Dallas had over 100 in the first half. They would wind up with 245 yards rushing to only 188 passing, but given that there were also four passing touchdowns, no one should be concerned about the split.

Coming into the game Carolina was leading the league in sacks, but it was the Cowboys who started getting to the quarterback. Randy Gregory had two sacks, Tarrell Basham had one, Chauncey Golston showed why he was drafted so high with his own, and Micah Parsons got in the act as well. Meanwhile the hyped defensive front seven of the Panthers was not able to get to Prescott as well as turning out to be amazingly porous against the run.

One encouraging sign was that Mike McCarthy showed some logical clock management during the last two minutes of the first half. After a second Gregory sack, he called consecutive timeouts as the defense made a stand to give Prescott and the offense the ball at their own 32 with 1:40 left. It came to naught, though, as the Carolina defense came hard to stop Dallas and go into half with that one-point lead. He did make a but of a puzzling challenge on a third and short run by Elliott, but it came at a time in the game when it certainly had no bearing on the outcome. On the other sideline, Matt Rhule may have made a bad decision on the opening drive of the second half, as he elected to have Zane Gonzalez attempt a 54-yard field goal. It was wide left, and gave Dallas the ball at their own 44. It didn’t take long for Moore to make him pay, as Elliott had three consecutive carries for a couple of first downs before Prescott dropped a perfect 35-yard touchdown pass into Amari Cooper’s arms as the Cowboys retook the lead.

However, that one example of McCarthy managing things correctly was overshadowed by how they handled the fourth quarter, not playing aggressively and letting the visitors get very much back into the game with four and a half minutes left. But given the outcome, that is a complaint we will gladly deal with.

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