The Dallas Cowboys had no problems extending their home winning streak to 11 games with a decisive 49-17 win over the Giants last Sunday, but face a different type of challenge on the road this week. The Cowboys will play against a Carolina Panthers team desperate for any positive signs of progress down the stretch of a season that’s seen first overall pick Bryce Young lose his first six starts, and come into Sunday with just one win. The Panthers have their eyes set on 2024, while the Cowboys recent play has firmly put them back in the discussion of 2023 contenders.
The Cowboys are chasing a one-loss Eagles team whose only blemish is a head-scratching loss to the Zach Wilson led Jets, and Dallas is looking to avoid taking a similar loss in a game they’re heavy favorites in. The team Dallas is currently fielding is hardly recognizable from the one that already went through these growing pains, losing at the Cardinals in week three to set up the thin margin for error they’ll play with the rest of the way to win the NFC East. Their offense is firing on all cylinders with every marker of success in a new Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer scheme surging Dak Prescott into MVP conversations. Getting the ball out of his hands and to playmakers CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and Jake Ferguson has the Cowboys averaging over 38 points a game over the last three weeks.
With the Cowboys only loss in this stretch being a one-score game in Philadelphia where Luke Schoonmaker was mere inches from six points, and Dallas came away with no points after being set up for a potential game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds from the six-yard line, this team is playing the complementary style they’ve coveted and the results are following. There are few tangible reasons on paper to see how the Panthers match up with them in this early kickoff Sunday, but in the unpredictable landscape of the NFL where the Cowboys have to self-motivate for an unfamiliar opponent with little to lose, anything can certainly happen.
The Cowboys last game in Carolina, practically buried in the pigskin archives going back to 2018, is a reminder of this. In what proved to be the final year of Scott Linehan’s tenure at offensive coordinator, the Cowboys opened their season with a 16-8 loss to a Carolina team led by Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey. The Cowboys trailed 10-0 entering the fourth quarter, with Cole Beasley, Ezekiel Elliott, Geoff Swaim, and Deonte Thompson making up their pass offense. Elliott gave the illusion the Cowboys were in this game with a late touchdown from four yards out to make it a one-score contest, but three sacks allowed over their final two possessions, including a game-ending fumble forced by Mario Addison, sealed the road loss for Dallas.
The Cowboys pass game clearly needed help, as it took until week four to surpass 200 yards in the air, and with a 3-4 record going into a week eight bye, the team made the trade for Amari Cooper. Follow the chain of dominoes that’s happened around this offense since then, and the Cooper trade played its part in setting up how the Cowboys are currently built around Dak Prescott. Kellen Moore took over as OC the following season, and now with the Chargers, the narrative on Moore was that his offenses weren’t sustainable through the wear and tear of a long season. This 2023 Cowboys team finds themselves at the point fans would typically be wondering if defenses are going to start catching up to Moore’s offense, instead adjusting to seeing a new-look offense just start to hit its stride.
Drawing a defense that’s allowed the third highest percentage of completions to go for first downs in the Panthers this week, and Carolina coming off a Thursday night loss to Tyson Bagent and the Bears, there’s little reason to expect this Cowboys at Panthers match up to look anything close to the last time these teams met here. The most recent overall meeting between the Cowboys and Panthers was a more high-scoring one from AT&T Stadium, as the Cowboys won 36-28 in week four of 2021. Dallas built a 33-16 lead on three third quarter Prescott touchdowns to Cooper, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson, but two fourth quarter scores from D.J. Moore allowed the Panthers back in the game.
As for this current Panthers offense that will be working through yet another play-caller change with head coach Frank Reich on Sunday, the Cowboys defense has appeared up to the task of rising above any un-scouted looks or surprises with their talent level and cohesion on all three levels. Dan Quinn’s group was its usual disruptive self against the Giants despite Micah Parsons not recording a single tackle, as Osa Odighizuwa and Mazi Smith played well inside, Markquese Bell and Damone Clark continued strong play at linebacker, and Daron Bland anchored the secondary with another interception.
With Bryce Young already throwing seven interceptions and being sacked 29 times in eight games, it remains to be seen if the Cowboys defense will be handed another big lead to protect, but the makings are there for them to stand on their head and win this game themselves if need be.
This Sunday will mark the second time in as many seasons the Cowboys will play against that year’s number one overall pick, and in this situation on the road in 2022 at the Jaguars, the Cowboys suffered a big loss in their already slim chances of passing the Eagles. Hoping history doesn’t repeat itself against Young is a different story, as he makes more of a play-by-play impact than Travon Walker did for Jacksonville as a rookie defensive lineman. Young will be the first top drafted QB to play against the Cowboys as a rookie since Jameis Winston in 2015, with Winston throwing two interceptions, being sacked twice, but still managing his fourth win of the year in a forgettable 10-6 loss for the Cowboys.
Whether it’s Lamb continuing to take over games, the ground game building on the tandem being established between Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle, another big game from Jake Ferguson, or the defense setting up short fields, the goal is simple for a Cowboys team still with so much to play for. The only acceptable outcome in Carolina is a win. All of the consistency and progress that McCarthy has built can’t afford to come crashing down for any of the reasons listed here as to why this is a prototypical trap game, with just twelve more quarters of play separating the Cowboys from a much-anticipated home primetime rematch with the Eagles.