The Dallas Cowboys suffered a heartbreaking loss last Sunday on the road against the Baltimore Ravens, but there is not long to dwell on it. The Cowboys will go back on the road during Week 7 to take on Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
While Carolina is not having the type of success they had imagined in 2012, sitting with a 1-4 record, the Panthers offer formidable competition for the 2-3 Cowboys.
Here are five keys the Cowboys must focus on to come out of Charlotte with the win on Sunday.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the Cowboys loss to Baltimore on Sunday was that Dan Bailey missed the game-winning field goal. Dallas fans, this writer included, had become so accustomed to Bailey making every big kick he attempts, that it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys would walk out of Baltimore with a 32-31 win instead of a 31-29 loss.
Bailey's miss on Sunday was his first of 2012, and it was his only attempt beyond 50 yards on the season. And do not forget he also hit two field goals from beyond 40 yards earlier in the game. Bailey will be fine, and the Cowboys still have complete confidence in their kicker to make big kicks.
However, the Cowboys did allow Jacoby Jones to return a kick 108 yards for a touchdown on Sunday. Carolina has a pair of talented returners that would love to take advantage of a breakdown in kick coverage on Sunday. Kealoha Pilares and Jody Adams each are capable of bringing one back given just a slight crease in the coverage.
Dallas needs to take advantage of Carolina's tendency to fumble the football on returns, as the aforementioned Jody Adams has fumbled two punt returns and a kick return so far this season.
The Cowboys can help themselves on Sunday by simply not allowing Carolina to score a touchdown in the return game and putting more pressure on the defense.
Cam Newton thrashed opposing defenses in 2011, with his legs and his cannon of a right arm. But Newton has struggled in 2012 so far, not quite matching up to the expectations that were placed on him for this season.
The second-year quarterback has completed only 58.8 percent of his passes this season, and has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4).
Carolina has struggled to keep Newton upright this season as well, giving up 13 sacks so far in their first five games. The Panthers recently placed their starting center Ryan Kalil on season-ending injured reserve, further weakening their offensive line.
The most dangerous part of Newton's game is indeed his ability to get outside of the pocket and run. The Panthers are also not afraid to call designed running plays for Newton whether it be on a bootleg or a draw right behind the center. If Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are able to take away the run, it will eliminate the biggest threat Newton brings to the table.
The Cowboys need to force Newton to stay inside the pocket and look down the field for his receivers. If the secondary can give the linebackers and ends enough time, Dallas could rack up multiple sacks and hopefully improve on their low interception total if Newton is forced into hurrying bad throws.
The one area of the game on Sunday that Dallas does have control over is their ability to cut down on the number of penalties they commit.
Dallas has committed 46 penalties on offense alone in 2012, accounting for a mind-boggling 330 yards, the fourth highest total in the league.
Holding penalties aside, the Cowboys have been among the league leaders in false start penalties for the last few seasons. In defense of the offensive line, the two road games in 2012 so far have been against the Giants and Seahawks, both of which play in big, loud stadiums.
The Cowboys have been penalized 33 times on defense as well.
Carolina however, has accounted for the second fewest penalties in the NFL this season. The Panthers have only been penalized 25 times on offense for 210 yards, and only 20 times on defense.
If the Cowboys go into Carolina and commit 9 penalties for 66 yards (their 2012 average), the Panthers could find a way to make Dallas pay for their mistakes.
Dallas used an old-fashioned power running attack last Sunday against Baltimore, and ran for more yards in a game than any other team in Ravens history.
Fans had been waiting on Jason Garrett to feature running back DeMarco Murray in the offense, and when they did, Murray rewarded them, rushing for 93 yards on 14 carries. Murray suffered a foot injury during the game, and saw limited action in the second half.
Out of nowhere, Felix Jones entered the game, scoring his first touchdown of the season and looking like the first round pick that the front office had envisioned with 92 yards on 18 carries. Jones wasn't alone, as Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar also were a part of a Cowboys rushing attack that accounted for 227 yards on 42 carries.
Credit should be given to the offensive line, who had arguably their best performance of the season. Phil Costa's return from injury should not be overlooked as one of the reasons for their improvement.
Carolina is 23rd in the league in rushing yards allowed, giving up 127.4 yards per game. It appears based on early reports, that Murray will miss at least one week due to his foot injury, so the running game will fall back on to Felix Jones, with Tanner and Dunbar in relief.
Sticking with the game plan that was successful against Baltimore, the Cowboys could have a big day on the ground against a less imposing run defense.
Love him or hate him, the Dallas Cowboys go as Tony Romo goes.
The most polarizing quarterback in the entire league has thrown nine interceptions this season and has been sacked nine times as well.
Those numbers are a little misleading however, with Romo throwing a number of those interceptions in an attempt to avoid sacks. The offensive line has been terrible at times this season, with the most recent example being in their loss to Chicago.
With the obvious goal of avoiding sacks, the offensive line must protect Romo to help him make better decisions on the fly.
The Panthers come into the game with 14 sacks on the year, with the majority coming from a quartet of defensive linemen that could give the Cowboys fits on Sunday.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and defensive end Charles Johnson each have 3.5 sacks on the season, while defensive ends Frank Alexander and Greg Hardy have 2.5 sacks and 2 sacks, respectively.
Keeping Tony Romo upright and giving him a clean pocket will be perhaps the most critical key to victory for the Cowboys.
Each team in the NFL provides a challenge for their opponent each week. While some teams are more talented than others, you cannot take any team for granted on your schedule.
The Cowboys appeared to be a much more focused group against Baltimore, and their seemed to be a different attitude when it came to their physical play and game planning.
The Cowboys have a shot to win the NFC East in 2012, with none of the four teams in a position to pull away from the pack at this point in the season.
For Dallas to find their way to the top of the division, they have to win the games that they are supposed to win. The Cowboys are supposed to win against Carolina.
They have won three straight games against the Panthers, and they are 8-3 all-time against Carolina. The difference in this year and years past is definitely Cam Newton being under center (or in the shotgun) for the Panthers.
Defensively the Cowboys will find a way to slow him down, and the offense will lean heavily on Felix Jones and the safety net of Jason Witten to find a way to go into Carolina and leave with another victory.
Cowboys 31, Panthers 20