The Carolina Panthers (1-4) are coming off their bye week and will be hosting the Dallas Cowboys (2-3) in a game that could determine the rest of their respective seasons. For the Panthers, a win here will be the motivational boost needed to right the ship and get back on track. The Cowboys will be looking to stay within striking distance of a very competitive NFC East division.
It has been over three years since these two teams last met, and Dallas will be seeing a different team than what it saw when they locked horns with each other in 2009.
However, much like the 2009 squad which had high expectations after winning the NFC South the previous season, the 2012 Panthers have been just as disappointing.
Carolina fans are hoping for a change in fortune and pull off the unthinkable: bouncing back from a lackluster first month and clinching a playoff berth. The road continues with their Week 8 meeting against the Cowboys.
In order to achieve success, the Panthers will need to achieve victory in a must-win home game. Here are the 10 keys to the game for Carolina.
Carolina's last regular-season win against Dallas was in 1997...yes, that is Kerry Collins at QB.
Historically, the Panthers do not fare too well against the Cowboys during the regular season. Carolina is 1-8 all time (3-8 if you count playoff games) and just seemed to be overmatched when playing America's Team.
To fully understand how long it has been since the Panthers defeated the Cowboys in the regular season, you need to go back to 1997. Carolina beat Dallas on Monday Night Football, 23-13, in what could be considered an upset. Kerry Collins was quarterbacking that team, and John Kasay was still a young kicker with a strong leg. Let that sink in for awhile.
The most recent win, however, came in 2004 during the playoffs. Either way you look at it, a win against Dallas is long overdue.
Statistically speaking, the odds don't look good for the Panthers, but this is a different team, and if the proper adjustments were made during the bye week, we could be looking at a different team.
On a more current note, the Panthers will be doing themselves a huge favor by making adjustments on their offensive line, secondary and the defensive front. Plus, Cam Newton will help his cause, and that of his team, by turning his game around and playing at the level many expected of him entering the season.
The Cowboys are sixth in the league in passing yards and look to build upon their success through the air against a questionable Carolina secondary. The Panthers have proven to be ineffective against elite quarterbacks this season, and despite getting heavy pressure on both Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, the defense still allowed them to score at least four touchdowns.
Romo isn't quite in elite status yet, but given the fact he has thrown for over 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns is still enough for him to seem formidable against the Panthers.
Even if Chris Gamble is able to go this week, Carolina will need their secondary to step up. It should be interesting to see how Josh Norman and Haruki Nakamura play this Sunday. Expect Captain Munnerlyn to see a lot of action as well.
The one positive to be taken from this: Romo has thrown nine interceptions, so far, this season.
What does DeMarco Murray, Morris Claiborne and Anthony Spence all have in common? They are either questionable or out for Sunday's game. Of the three, Murray has been officially ruled out, and it remains to be seen whether or not the other two will see the field or not.
Carolina needs to take advantage of this, and if Cam Newton and the running backs can exploit this weakness, the Panthers could have a big day on offense.
Defensively, the Panthers would be wise to not take the absence of Murray for granted as they were burned by a second-string running back in Week 3 against the Giants. Hopefully, Carolina learned from that mistake and will not take anyone lightly again.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and despite the Cowboys coming into this game banged up and missing a couple of key players, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be a cake walk for the Panthers. It will be in the Panthers' best interest to bring their A-game, and with any luck, the bye week will have the entire roster feeling refreshed and ready to go.
Cam Newton has struggled mightily this season, and whether it's a slump or him trying to do too much, he is far from the same quarterback who took the league by storm last year. Everyone in Carolina and around football know just how good he can be when he is on his game.
His biggest issue is to not turn the ball over. In every game Newton throws an interception, the Panthers lose. Eventually, this trend will break but coming into a game against an underachieving Dallas team would be a great start for Newton to return to relevance.
The offense lives and dies based on his performance, and while he needs support from everyone around him, he needs to make sound decisions and trust his instincts to make the big play.
Dallas has yet to play a team with an offense that is as versatile as Carolina's, and with the exception of playing the Seahawks, they haven't really gone up against a quarterback with Newton's skill set. With any luck, Newton and the Panthers use that to their advantage and create havoc for the Cowboys defense.
Gimmick offenses can be fun. They can be downright effective when utilized properly. Such was the case with the introduction of the Wildcat a few years back. The same applied to Rob Chudzinski's option spread offense last year.
However, what made it work was that it was used sparingly and when defenses were not ready for it. This year, it is a completely different story. The Panthers have been unable to run the option with much success as opponents are making the necessary adjustments and forcing the Panthers backfield to make bad decisions.
While this aspect of the playbook may still work, it needs to be limited or thrown out altogether—at least for awhile. Carolina has the players and resources to be any kind of offense they want and returning to a more fundamentally sound offensive unit could be a good start.
The Panthers have been able to win before using a smashmouth, ground-and-pound style of offense. They can still do it along with the ability to air it out. They need to move away from the option and put defenses back in check.
Once it returns to being unpredictable, Carolina will be a dangerous team once again.
On paper, the Panthers' chances of winning don't look so good. There are questions about the availability of Jon Beason and Chris Gamble. There is also the Dallas defense to contend with since it's ranked first in passing yards allowed (182 yards per game) and 13th in rushing yards allowed (104 yards per game).
Carolina needs to come out in its first series and score a touchdown. A field goal or three-and-out is unacceptable. They need to send a message from the start, and a statement like that will be the ideal start. From that point on, they need to keep moving forward and not look back.
The Cowboys could underestimate the Panthers based on their injuries and recent play. If the bye week proved to be a productive one, Carolina should throw Dallas off its game and keep it on its heels through four quarters.
One of the problems facing Carolina this season has been its inability to close out games, pick up crucial first downs or simply run a designed play the way it was drawn up. By limiting mistakes and making the most out of every drive, the Panthers will put themselves in a better position to not only win but to turn their season around.
This is not limited to the offense as the defense and special teams need to do their part. The defense needs to keep the Dallas offense in check by closing running lanes and pressuring Tony Romo all game long.
The special teams need to limit returns on kickoffs and punt returns by getting their guys down the field and blanketing the return man. On the other side of the spectrum, they need good returns from whoever is back there—be it Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares or Armanti Edwards.
It sounds cliche, but it is very true. If you cannot execute plays or do what is asked of you in the game, the probability of winning will be extremely low.
Just like the Cowboys are experiencing their injury woes, the Panthers have found themselves in a similar spot. Center Ryan Kalil is done for the year and will be replaced by guard Geoff Hangartner. Chris Gamble's status is unknown and could see his spot filled by Captain Munnerlyn.
Jon Beason's injury may keep rookie Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker who performed tremendously against Seattle in Week 5.
Everyone who has closely followed the Panthers organization understands the bench has been a weak spot as it has lacked depth. However, with them being a young team, everyone needs to step up and contribute.
Given the circumstances and their record, the Carolina backups have nothing to lose and can only help themselves out by playing a strong, solid game.
When Ron Rivera and his staff were brought in last year, they seemed to be the right people for the job. Rob Chudzinski did a fantastic job of turning around a pathetic offense, and Sean McDermott brought with him a pedigree for having been mentored by the late, great Jim Johnson.
While the defense hasn't lived up to the expectations that McDermott envisioned when he came into the organization, it has showed some flashes of promise but is still a work in progress.
Chudzinski seems to favor being creative as opposed to being smart and playing to the strengths of his offense. As mentioned in an earlier slide, he needs to get away from the option and let the running and passing games take hold the right way.
Opponents have been keying in on Carolina's weaknesses and exploiting them. This is why the Panthers are sitting at 1-4. Rivera has shouldered some of the blame himself as there were concerns about whether Carolina should have punted on 4th-and-1 against the Atlanta Falcons and entrusting his weak secondary to keep the Atlanta receivers in check.
Everyone knows how the story ends, and the Panthers lost a heartbreaker.
Just like the players need to execute out on the field, the coaches need to make solid, smart decisions and not overthink game strategy.
The one drawback about being a young team is the fact there are legions of fans for long-established franchises. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception. They are one of the few teams who can come into Bank of America Stadium with a great showing of support from their fans.
Since it's been a while between matchups featuring these two teams, it could be a loud, rowdy affair with a heavy influx of Dallas faithful in the stands.
The fans of Carolina need to get behind their team and rally them throughout the game. The players will feed off the support and energy, and it may prove to be the X-factor the Panthers need to get a win.
Teams like Seattle and New England have a great showing of loud, supportive fans. Carolina would benefit greatly from having their hometown crowd drowning out the Dallas supporters on game day.