The Carolina Panthers' season has not started quite the way they envisioned it would.
Last year's NFC South division champion and the recipient of a first round playoff bye has opened up 2009 in far from impressive fashion. Back to back losses, albeit to playoff teams from 2008, has fans in Charlotte up in arms and calling for heads across the board.
Regardless of which name you choose to drag through the mud, be it Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers, John Fox, Marty Hurney, or even Jerry Richardson, chances are there are valid points out there to backup your case.
That's what this team has been reduced to. Instead of showing up on Sundays to pull for the home team, or flocking to the local bars in droves to outnumber opposing fans for away games, this fan base has morphed into a pessimistic group of head hunters.
The Panthers made strides between their season opener and their loss last week in Atlanta, but that fact was overshadowed by the fact that Julius Peppers, making roughly $1 million per game, didn't have a sack and only recorded two tackles.
A victory in Dallas has the potential to completely turn the tables in Charlotte and across Panther Nation.
Wade Phillips, Tony Romo, and the rest of "America's Team" have their own questions swirling around them. Much like the Panthers, their first two games have been riddled with a poor pass rush and shaky quarterback play. The only glaring difference is that the Cowboys were graced with Tampa Bay in Week One and were able to notch a victory.
The Panthers defense will be the key on Sunday night but not necessarily because of their production. The defense will be instrumental in making sure the Panthers' most effective weapon can reach its maximum potential.
That weapon, of course, is none other than the double-edged sword that has been dubbed "Double Trouble." The running back combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart burst onto the scene last year and is widely regarded as one of the top duos in the game. The two combined for over 2,300 yards last year while punching in 28 touchdowns.
The two have picked up where they left off last year but have not had the chance to shine because the Panthers have been playing from behind for most of the year.
Williams has two touchdowns in two games while averaging 3.9 yards per carry, while Stewart is averaging about 5.0 yards per carry but hasn't reached the promised land yet.
The Panthers' best chance to come away from Dallas with a tally in the win column lies in the hands (or legs) of this tandem. The only way they will get the chance to lead the team to victory is if the defense can keep Romo and friends from jumping out to an early lead.
Though the Panthers put forth a better offensive effort last Sunday in Atlanta, the team was forced to call 41 pass plays compared to just 25 run plays due to the balance of the scoreboard being tipped in the Falcons' direction. Williams averaged 4.9 yards per carry and Stewart averaged over seven, but the flow of the game wouldn't allow the running backs to be featured like the Panthers would have preferred.
The Cowboys' defense is giving up an average of 135.5 rushing yards per game in 2009, and is giving up 4.7 yards per carry. Tampa Bay ran wild on Dallas, and although they were able to keep Brandon Jacobs pretty much in tact, the Giants were still able to control the ground game.
If the Panthers can score first for the third straight week, then put together a couple of solid defensive possessions to keep the Cowboys from responding right away, then Double Trouble should be able to hunker down and put in a solid body of work. Establishing the running game would take unneeded pressure off of Delhomme and would allow the play action pass to be a viable option as the game grinds on.
It is also important that the Panthers' coaching staff play into their strengths on Monday. The lights will be bright and the building will be packed, but nerves cannot interfere with the gameplan. A three and out on the opening drive does not mean that Delhomme needs to come out slingin' on the second.
For this team, the running game is the bread, the butter, and the knife that spreads it. Delhomme isn't the kind of guy who can take the offense under his wing and win games week in and week out.
John Fox and his play-calling cronies have been notorious for abandoning the running game early on in recent memory. Keeping the ball on the ground is the main key to winning this game for Carolina, and to get away from that too early will spell doom and could lead to another Delhomme meltdown if we're not careful.
The Panthers' defense has been unimpressive to say the least this year, but playing with a lead would be a welcome change of scenery for those guys. Perhaps this scheme will click and the light bulb will come on if they have a chance to go out on the field with something to protect rather than trying to keep the situation from getting worse.
Whichever way you slice it, the Panthers need to establish the ground game to be successful not only in Dallas, but every week.