After gaining sole possession of last place in the 16-team conference, Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell said, “If we keep playing like this, we aren’t going to be able to make the playoffs.”
LaFell actually had one of his better games so far this season against the Cowboys with four catches for 53 yards.
He also scored the Panthers’ first touchdown of the game shortly before halftime to give Carolina a 7-3 lead at the break.
Dallas scored all 10 of the game’s third-quarter points before Mike Tolbert scored his second rushing touchdown of the season to help Carolina regain the lead at 14-13.
Here is a look at the Panthers’ winners and losers in this game.
The Panthers’ linebackers corps had its best game of the season on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
Luke Kuechly has finally found his home on the Carolina Panthers’ defense at middle linebacker.
The Panthers’ first round draft choice notched a career-high 15 tackles and recovered a fumble—caused by outside linebacker Thomas Davis—to help thwart a second-quarter Cowboys drive.
Outsides backers James Anderson (12 tackles) and Thomas Davis (10 tackles) were equally impressive, flying all over the field and helping limit Dallas’ running backs to 74 yards on 28 carries (2.6 yards per carry).
Carolina’s secondary played its best game of the season with its best player, cornerback Chris Gamble, on the sidelines with a shoulder injury for the second straight game.
Outside of Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin, who caught five passes for 97 yards and a touchdown, none of the Dallas receivers had a big day and Tony Romo was limited to 227 yards passing, which is his lowest total so far this season.
Most of Romo’s success came on checkdowns and dink-and-dunk passes to his tight end Jason Witten and running back Felix Jones.
Rookie cornerback Josh Norman was beaten on Austin’s 36-yard reception in the corner of the end zone, but Carolina’s zone coverage effectively eliminated the deep ball throughout the game.
Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn played solid nickel and cornerback for the Panthers today and free safeties Sherrod Martin and Haruki Nakamura also played well.
Panthers Fans (in Attendance)
The Carolina Panthers fans and season-ticket holders who actually showed up for this game and did not sell their seats to the Dallas Cowboys faithful supported their team as loudly as I have heard a Panthers crowd in a long time.
Unfortunately, a large number of Panthers PSL owners decided to make a quick buck and sold their tickets to loyal and boisterous Cowboys supporters.
The fact is, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a transient town, and the Panthers are a secondary team for many local football fans, including native Charlotteans born before 1987 who formed a team identity before the Panthers came into existence in 1995.
However, the Panthers fans who attended Sunday’s game were often louder than and at least as enthusiastic as their counterparts in Cowboys attire, even if they did not outnumber them by much.
But I believe it is like that for teams like the Cowboys and the Steelers—much like it is for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in baseball or the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics in basketball—in all but a handful of stadiums and arenas throughout the country.
The Panthers are at least another 10 years or a Super Bowl appearance away from deepening their roots in the Charlotte community, gaining a legitimate home-field advantage and truly becoming the team of the Carolinas.
Panthers Pass Rush
Carolina’s pass rush was non-existent against Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys.
Not only did the Panthers not come up with a sack the entire game, they rarely even touched Romo, whose jersey was probably cleaner after the game than every other Cowboys player's (save for placekicker Dan Bailey’s).
For a unit that produced seven sacks against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, Carolina’s defensive line was shockingly ineffective against the Cowboys.
Cam Newton had another strong day with his legs, leading the Panthers with 64 yards rushing on just six attempts, but he continued to struggle with his accuracy and decision making.
Newton completed 21-of-37 passes (56.8 percent) for 233 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
He also missed several wide-open targets throughout the game, and his interception to Morris Claiborne came in the Cowboys’ end zone on 2nd-and-goal from the six-yard line.
During his postgame press conference, Newton projected his frustration with how the season is going so far and said that, “Something's going to have to change.”
With the Panthers’ playoffs hopes all but vanished due to the offense’s lack of production, an improvement in Newton's leadership and decision making are among the biggest changes that have to be made in order to find success in the last 10 games of the season.
For all the talent the Carolina Panthers have on offense—they were fifth in the NFL in scoring last season—supposed offensive mastermind and Panthers’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has dropped the ball in 2012.
The Panthers have been held to 14 points or fewer in four of their first six games this season after being projected by many analysts to be a Top-10 offense in 2012.
Once again, Carolina passed the ball way more often than they ran—37 pass attempts and 21 runs—and once again they came up short.
If the Panthers offense cannot get its act together and double its per-game scoring average over the course of Carolina’s last ten games, Chud may be looking for a coaching position next season instead of interviewing for head coaching jobs like he did this offseason.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on B/R.
Follow me on Twitter and read all my witty comments on @jimmygrappone.
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