Panthers vs. Cowboys: Full Carolina Game Preview
The Carolina Panthers (10-0) have plenty to be thankful for this season. They can be thankful they remain undefeated, far bettering their previous best start of 5-0. Only five times have the Panthers won more games over the course of an entire season than they have already in 2015.
They can be thankful for the Pro Bowl-level of play of Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, Trai Turner, Ryan Kalil, Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman, propelling the Panthers ever further forward and raising the level of play of everyone around them. They can be thankful that they’re gaining national recognition, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time since 2005. They can be thankful that it’s theoretically possible to clinch a playoff berth this weekend. They can be thankful that they’re dancing their way through the NFC, and that nothing has been able to slow them down this far.
For the first time in franchise history, the Panthers get to play on Thanksgiving day, travelling to take on the Dallas Cowboys (3-7). The Cowboys can be thankful Tony Romo is back from his long stretch on the injured list, but very little else has gone right for Dallas so far this season. They didn’t win a single game during Romo’s six-game absence, and are all but mathematically eliminated, even in the less-competitive NFC East. They need a win in this game to even entertain thoughts of being playoff-bound.
In recent years, the Cowboys have had Carolina’s number. The Cowboys have won the last five meetings between the two teams, and are 9-3 overall against the Panthers. The last time Carolina beat Dallas was in the playoffs after the 2003 season, behind Jake Delhomme’s 273 passing yards and Stephen Davis’ 104 yards on the ground. That’s an epoch ago in NFL terms.
Since then, the Cowboys have outscored the Panthers 129-68, though three of the five games have been close, including the last matchup in 2012—a 19-14 affair which the Cowboys won with two Dan Bailey field goals in the final four minutes.
Perhaps that—coupled with the Cowboys winning six of their last nine Thanksgiving Day games—explains how the Cowboys somehow opened as one-point favorites over the Panthers. It’s only the second time a 10-0 team has opened as an underdog in their 11th game, according to BookMaker (h/t Washington Post).
Oddly enough, head coach Ron Rivera has some experience in precisely this situation—he was a member of that 1985 Chicago Bears team which opened as an underdog on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. The result? A 44-0 drubbing.
While we shouldn’t be comparing this year’s Panthers to the ’85 Bears just yet, opening as underdogs to a 3-7 team like Dallas is “disrespectful”, as Rivera put it on Monday. Some of the line is thanks to the Cowboys being perennial favorites by the betting public year in and year out, but you would think a seven-win gap would be enough to overcome that perspective, Tony Romo or no.
Will the Panthers pull off the “upset”? Will they join the 16 previous teams to start a season 11-0? Or will their Thanksgiving dinner include a side of humble pie? We’ll find out on Thursday.
Location: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX
Time: 4:30 PM on Thursday
TV: CBS, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on the call.
Week 11 Results and Recap
- Carolina Panthers (10-0)
- Arizona Cardinals (8-2)
- Green Bay Packers (7-3) (Ahead of MIN via head-to-head)
- New York Giants (5-5)
- Minnesota Vikings (7-3)
- Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
The Panthers improved to 10-0 with an absolute drubbing of the Washington Redskins, winning 44-16 behind record-setting days from Cam Newton and the Panthers defense.
Newton tied a franchise record with five touchdown passes, hitting five different receivers and throwing four of them in a first half that shattered Newton’s previous personal bests and put the game well out of reach before the teams could even regroup at halftime.
The defense did their part, too, forcing a team-record five fumbles and recovering four of them. Other than one large touchdown reception by DeSean Jackson and one large kickoff return by Andre Roberts, Washington could not move the ball all day long. They finished with only 186 yards of offense, including just 14 yards rushing. They were limited to nine first downs, as well. There are ways to combat an offensive explosion like Carolina put up, but not when the defense prevented them from getting any momentum going. What was once a 14-14 game became a laugher quickly.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys got their first win in a month and a half thanks to the return of Tony Romo from his collarbone injury. Romo didn’t have the best day of his career by any stretch of the imagination, but his 18-for-28 line, with 227 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, was leaps and bounds better than what Matt Cassel or Brandon Weeden put up, as he led the Cowboys on a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Miami Dolphins, 24-14.
The Cowboys’ seven-game losing streak had been their longest since 1989. Romo was rusty at times, but got better as the game went along. It is probably too little, too late for the Cowboys, considering their terrible performance in Romo’s absence, but they are only two games out of first place in the division. A win against Carolina might be the spark they need to remain relevant in 2015.
NFC South Standings
The Panthers’ closest competition in the division faltered, with the Atlanta Falcons falling 21-24 to the Indianapolis Colts when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 43-yard field goal with just 52 seconds left in the game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, shocked the Philadelphia Eagles 45-17 in the biggest upset of the week, when Jameis Winston threw five touchdown passes.
All four teams are technically still alive in the NFC South, but that can change this week. A Panthers win will eliminate the Saints from contention, while a win and a Buccaneers loss will knock Tampa Bay out of the picture. The Panthers already have the division more or less sewn up—a 3-3 record from here on out will clinch the division for Carolina—but removing teams from even mathematical contention is always a good step.
NFC Playoff Picture
Green Bay’s win over Minnesota last Sunday helps the Panthers. They have the tiebreaker over Green Bay but not Minnesota, should Carolina struggle over the final six weeks of the season. Arizona’s win keeps Carolina’s lead at just two games in the NFC; they can clinch the top seed in the NFC with a 5-1 record, but could lose the tiebreaker to Arizona if both teams finish at 14-2.
The Panthers can actually clinch a playoff berth this weekend with a win and some help. It’s more or less a foregone conclusion that Carolina will be in the playoffs, but it’d be a nice feather in their cap if they could be the first team to mathematically clinch a spot. See the next slide for a more detailed breakdown of the playoff scenarios this week.
The Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were all eliminated from potential home field advantage consideration last week, but all 16 NFC teams can still technically earn one of the two bye weeks. A win in Dallas would help Carolina push that bar even further forward.
In the NFC West, a Panthers win would eliminate the St. Louis Rams from potential home field advantage, while a win and a Seattle loss would knock the Seahawks out of the picture. San Francisco falls out of bye-week consideration with a loss, while a Rams loss and some help would knock St. Louis out of the picture there, as well.
In the NFC North, a Panthers win would eliminate the Chicago Bears from potential home field advantage. A Chicago loss and some help would knock them out of bye-week consideration, while a Detroit loss and some help would do the same for the Lions.
In the NFC East, a Panthers win would knock Washington and Philadelphia Eagles out of the home field advantage race, and Dallas out of first-round bye consideration. A win and a Giants loss would knock New York out of the home field advantage picture, and losses by Philadelphia and Washington, coupled with help elsewhere, would eliminate them from first-round bye consideration.
Most of this is not particularly meaningful for the Panthers—only the Cardinals really have a chance of catching them for the top seed in the NFC. Still, every eliminated team is one less possible miracle comeback, and one less hurdle for Carolina to clear.
News and Notes
Carolina Can Clinch a Playoff Berth
Despite the calendar not even flipping to December yet, the Panthers can actually punch their playoff ticket this weekend with five weeks remaining in the regular season. Since the NFL went to a 16-game regular season in 1978, only four teams have clinched their division during their 11th game—the ’85 Bears, ’97 49ers, ’04 Eagles and ’07 Patriots. The Panthers can’t quite join that group, as the NFC South will remain out of their grasp for at least one more week, but it would still be an impressive feat.
Ignoring ties for the moment, all three scenarios for the Panthers to be playoff bound start with a win in Dallas. In addition, they’ll need one of the following sets of results to occur:
- Minnesota d. Atlanta and Pittsburgh d. Seattle
- Indianapolis d. Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh d. Seattle
- Atlanta d. Minnesota, Indianapolis d. Tampa Bay and San Francisco d. Arizona
A win would mean the Panthers would be, at worst, 11-5. A Seattle loss would make them at best 10-6 on the year, pinning them below the Panthers. The same would happen with Tampa Bay, meaning that the Panthers and Falcons would, in Carolina’s worst-case scenario, be guaranteed to win the NFC South and a wild-card berth regardless.
If Tampa Bay wins, they’re still alive for the division technically, so the Panthers would need the Falcons to lose. It is theoretically still possible for all three teams to finish at 11-5. This would require the Panthers losing two games to Atlanta and one to Tampa Bay, so Tampa Bay would win the division with a 5-1 division record and Atlanta would finish on top of Carolina thanks to the head-to-head sweep. Couple that with Minnesota and Green Bay finishing ahead of them as well, and Carolina would miss the playoffs. That’s the only way the Panthers could be trumped by two teams in their own division.
If Seattle wins, the Panthers would actually need an Atlanta win over Minnesota, as well as a Cardinals loss, to clinch a playoff berth this week. This scenario’s a little more complex, but it’s basically because the Cardinals play the Vikings and Packers in Weeks 14 and 16, respectively, as well as the Green Bay-Minnesota rematch in Week 17, and Seattle’s games against Minnesota and Arizona in Weeks 13 and 17.
Assuming the Vikings and Cardinals both drop a game this week, there is no combination of results that would have the Panthers not only losing the division, but also being behind at least two of the lesser teams in the Atlanta/Tampa Bay, Green Bay/Minnesota and Arizona/Seattle races. It’s a complicated clinching scenario, but it exists.
All of this is likely moot, because if the Panthers don’t clinch this week, they’d likely clinch the week after, but it’s still something to keep track of on Sunday while the Panthers do not play.
The Return of the Defensive Ends
Even before his 10-game suspension was reduced to four, this week’s game was highlighted because it will feature Greg Hardy facing the Panthers for the first time since he was allowed to leave in free agency this past offseason. Hardy racked up 34 sacks as a Panther from 2010-2014, fifth on the franchise all-time leaderboard. He was a Pro Bowler in 2013, and the Panthers have yet to really replace his production at defensive end.
Of course, Hardy’s been most notable the past two seasons for what he’s done off the field, rather than what he’s done on it. Hardy was suspended for all but one game last season by Carolina thanks to the domestic violence charges against him, and was then suspended by the league due to “sufficient credible evidence” that Hardy violated the Personal Conduct Policy, citing at least four incidents when Hardy used physical force.
While that 10-game suspension was reduced on appeal, Hardy has not exactly been on his best behavior in Dallas, either. He has been proclaiming his innocence on twitter, fighting with Dez Bryant and special teams coach Rich Bisaccia on the sidelines, getting into a physical altercation with a teammate during training camp, making sexist comments about Tom Brady’s wife and repeatedly showing up late to meetings and practices. He’s been a hot topic of conversation in the media all season long, and a distraction on and off the field.
Several members of the Panthers, including Thomas Davis and Mike Tolbert, still consider Hardy a friend, which makes sense after they had been teammates for so long. It’s hard to argue, however, that Hardy and his distractions being out of town haven’t been a boon to the Panthers so far this season. Cam Newton on Monday made a point of saying that the biggest difference for the Panthers so far this season has been a “healthy locker room”, which the Cowboys definitely do not have.
The other defensive end making a return this week is Charles Johnson, who was activated after suffering a hamstring injury back in Week 3.
“I thought I could (come back sooner), but at the same time these eight weeks helped me get my leg stronger and I feel like I’m 100 percent,” Johnson said, per Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer.
Johnson will boost depth on a line that has been playing better the past couple weeks, and a rotation of Johnson, Kony Ealy and Jared Allen seems likely until Johnson fully gets back into game shape. The Panthers are better off having Johnson, and the 63.5 sacks he’s had as a Panther, than Hardy and the off-field controversy he brings with him.
Three Panthers Suspended for Drug Violations
The Panthers’ perfect season hit a bit of a speed bump this week, as three separate Panthers were hit with suspensions for violating the league’s drug policy.
The most notable might be Frank Alexander, who was suspended for an entire year for violating the substance-abuse policy for the third time, according to Bill Voth of the Black and Blue Review. Alexander had previously gone through four- and ten-game suspensions last season, and it’s probably safe to assume that Alexander’s third strike is probably his last with the team.
On Monday, two other Panthers were suspended as well, (h/t Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer). Wes Horton was suspended for four games for violating the PED policy, his first such violation. Stephen Hill was suspended for one game for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, likely due to his charge for possession of marijuana paraphernalia back in July.
None of the three suspensions are likely to have much of an impact on the Panthers this season—Alexander and Hill are both on injured reserve, while Horton was inactive last week as he’s fallen down the depth chart.
Even with the return of Tony Romo, the Panthers look to be moderately healthier than the Cowboys are, according to their respective injury reports. However, the Panthers may have to make a move or two to make sure they have a full roster for Thursday’s game.
- WR Ted Ginn Jr. (knee) was listed as limited on Monday, but the Panthers didn’t actually practice on Monday. Ginn was a full participant on Tuesday, and will be fine to go against the Cowboys.
- G Andrew Norwell (hamstring) has missed the past three games, but he is back practicing in full, and says he will be good to go against Dallas, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. Norwell was having a great season before leaving with the hamstring injury, and looks to pick up where he left off.
- WR Corey Brown (shoulder) was inactive last week, and remained limited in practice this week. Even if he does play—which seems doubtful—it looks like Devin Funchess has replaced him in the starting lineup going forward.
- CB Charles Tillman (knee) was back at practice in a limited fashion this week, but is still dealing with that hyperextended knee. Ron Rivera was not very optimistic about his ability to play on Thursday, saying, “Eh, we’ll see”, according to the Black and Blue Review. It would not be at all surprising to see Bene Benwikere get another start, with Colin Jones back in the nickel.
- LS J.J. Jansen (head) was a surprise addition to the injured list. He had a headache, and went to see a doctor on Tuesday afternoon to check for possible concussion symptoms, which would put him in the concussion protocol, according to the Charlotte Observer. The Panthers three emergency long snappers are Jared Allen, Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson, but if Jansen does miss the game, the Panthers will likely sign a free-agent long snapper, according to Ron Rivera.
- G Amini Silatolu (knee) suffered a torn ACL against Washington, and will be out for the rest of the season. He had been playing quite well in relief of the injured Andrew Norwell, so it’s disappointing to see his season end like this. Chris Scott would be the primary backup on the inside at this point.
- DT Dwan Edwards (ankle) did not practice on Tuesday, one week after returning from a multiple-game absence. There’s no news as to whether or not this is a long-term setback, but it doesn’t look good for his odds of suiting up on Thursday.
- WR Brice Butler (hamstring) was listed as a full participant in practice after missing last week with the injury. He tweeted out that he was ready on Monday, so he should be good to play on Thursday.
- S Barry Church (ankle) was listed as limited for the phantom practice on Monday, but was a full participant on Tuesday. He should be good for Thursday.
- DE Demarcus Lawrence (back), DT Nick Hayden (ankle), LB Anthony Hitchens (ankle) and LB Rolando McClain (foot) also all appeared on the injury list, but all were listed as full participants and should suit up on Thursday.
- QB Tony Romo (back/shoulder) was still limited at practice, as the Cowboys take it easy with his recovery from his collarbone injury. Matt Cassel remains the backup in case Romo re-injures himself, but he’s fully expected to play on Thursday.
- RB Darren McFadden (groin) has been nursing a groin strain for a few weeks, but was able to play against Miami with a full workload. Robert Turbin and Rod Smith are his backups if the groin tightens up between now and Thursday, but expect him to play.
- WR Dez Bryant (foot/knee) has been active for the past few weeks after breaking a bone in his foot, but is still listed as limited. Per Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he told the media not to worry, however, and that he is fine and playing. If he had a setback for some reason, Cole Beasley would presumably get more snaps.
- LB Kyle Wilber (toe) was questionable but active on Sunday against Miami. Wilber will likely do the same this week and resume his role on special teams.
- CB Brandon Carr (shoulder) was limited last week with a shoulder injury, but started anyway. This is the same injury, and will likely end up in the same playing time, especially considering Dallas’ other injuries in the secondary.
- CB Byron Jones (ankle) was listed as limited as well, but likely will make his second-straight start at cornerback this week, thanks to Morris Claiborne’s injury. After Carr, Claiborne and Jones, the Cowboys are down to the likes of Tyler Patmon and Deji Olatoye, so they’re thin at cornerback.
- S Jeff Heath (shoulder) is listed as limited, as he was last week before playing anyway. The same should be true for Thanksgiving.
- DE Ryan Russell (abdomen) did not practice on Tuesday, but he’s been a regular inactive, healthy or not.
- CB Morris Claiborne (hamstring/ankle) missed another practice, after missing Week 11 with his hamstring injury. While he was on the elliptical machine in the weight room, per Brandon George, he is almost certain to miss this week, as reported by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram.
LT Michael Oher vs. DE Greg Hardy
For all Hardy’s off-field antics, he’s still one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. In just six games this year, he has five sacks, nine quarterback hits and 10 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. This is why the Cowboys have put up with the distractions Hardy brings to the team—he’s a very good football player.
Oher and Hardy go way back—they were basketball teammates in high school, football teammates at Ole Miss, and they’ve been competing since then. They’ve played against each other one time previously—a 2010 matchup, where the Ravens beat the Panthers 37-13—but Hardy was not a starter in that game, and mostly went up against Marshal Yanda on the other side of the line. This could be their first extended time playing against one another in the NFL.
Oher has really stepped his game up in pass protection this year, to the point where he’s been Carolina’s best lineman strictly in terms of keeping Cam Newton upright. He’s allowed half the number of pressures Mike Remmers has on the other side of the line, for example, per PFF. Hardy, meanwhile, leads the Cowboys in sacks despite missing a month due to suspension. It should be a good matchup on the outside.
Carolina Defensive Ends vs. Dallas Offensive Tackles
We don’t really know yet how Charles Johnson, Jared Allen and Kony Ealy will split snaps on Thursday—they’ve never all been active at the same time. Ealy and Johnson are likely the best two on the team as starters, with Allen coming in as a reserve thanks to his age, but the Panthers want to keep Johnson on about a 30-snap snap count, per Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer.
Whoever starts and however those snaps are distributed, they’ll be attacking Tyron Smith and Doug Free. Smith and Free did not have a good game last week, with Smith giving up a couple sacks and the two combining for eight total pressures, per PFF. Tony Romo was under pressure about half the time, playing well when he had time to throw, and throwing both interceptions when he was under duress.
Smith being the lesser of the two is an aberration when looking at the season as a whole. Those two sacks PFF had Smith giving up doubled his total for the season, and he’s still allowed just 15 pressures all year. More importantly, he’s the best run-blocker the Cowboys have, and Darren McFadden trundled for 129 yards on 29 carries last week.
Free, on the other hand, has yet to allow a sack, but he’s up to 23 pressures on the season, and has the lowest grade on the Cowboys at -11.3 on the year. It’s probably a net advantage to the Cowboys in the running game, especially on the left side, but an advantage to Carolina when it comes to the pass rush.
DT Kawann Short vs. C Travis Frederick
Travis Frederick might be the only center in football who is playing better than Ryan Kalil at the moment. He’s yet to allow a sack all season, is a powerful driving force in run blocking, and hasn’t been flagged for a single penalty all year long—a far cry from the seven flags on Free or the five on Smith and Zack Martin.
It’ll be a matchup of two likely Pro Bowlers as he lines up across from Kawann Short. The two have never met in the pros, but did actually meet in college in 2012, when Frederick (then of the Wisconsin Badgers) shut down Short (then of the Purdue Boilermakers).
Obviously, quite a few things have changed since 2012, but Dallas would have a much better chance of winning if Frederick can pull a repeat performance against Short, securing the interior of the line and allowing Darren McFadden to pound the ball up the middle. Washington couldn’t do it, as the Panthers limited them to just 14 rushing yards on the day, but Carolina has had some issues in run defense in the past.
Carolina X-Factor: RG Trai Turner
Trai Turner is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season at right guard in just his second year in the league. The Panthers love to run straight up the middle, and the blocking of Turner and Ryan Kalil play a major role there. Turner has also only allowed one sack all season, to Indianapolis back in Week 8. He slowed down a little since his great start to the season, but he’s still been a rock on the line.
Dallas allowed 4.34 yards per carry on runs up the middle, tied for the fifth-worst mark in the league. They’ve been worse at making stops—28.6 percent of the runs up the gut at Dallas result in a first down or a touchdown, the worst mark in the league. Nick Hayden and Tyrone Crawford have not been solid in the middle of Dallas’ defensive line. If the Panthers can jump out to a lead, they can start pounding the ball behind their three great interior linemen, with Turner and company leading the way.
Dallas X-Factor: MLB Rolando McClain
Rolando McClain has been picking up his play as of late, after starting slowly after a four-game suspension to start the season. He’s worked through some nagging injuries but is healthy now, and making an impact.
He had a 12-yard interception for a touchdown against Miami to go along with three tackles. The week before, he had seven tackles and three hits on Jameis Winston, per Pro Football Focus. It’s been slow, but he’s finally beginning to make an impact this season. His interception was huge against Miami, and Dallas will need turnovers and impact plays like that to win this one.
Keep an eye on McClain as part of the all-hands-on-deck handling of Greg Olsen and the running backs out of the backfield.
Prediction: Panthers 28, Cowboys 17
There is no doubt that the Dallas Cowboys are better with Tony Romo under center than they were with Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel. To think that the Cowboys are as poor as the team that rattled off seven straight losses without him is to underestimate the team's potential.
On the other hand, Romo is one player on one side of the ball—an important one, no doubt, but not a cure-all for everything that the Cowboys have had issues with this season.
The Cowboys still “boast” a below-average defense, especially against the run, where they’ve been quite poor. Dallas is allowing 4.2 yards per carry, and have allowed teams to go over 100 yards rushing in six games this year, including the Philadelphia Eagles torching them for 172 yards three weeks ago.
Perhaps Romo’s continued presence can continue to boost Dallas’ passing attack, which was very poor without him, but it’s not like Romo was perfect against Miami, either. He struggled in the red zone, threw a couple picks when pressured, and in general showed signs of rust.
I can see why betters and oddsmakers are favoring Dallas in this one—it’s more likely than not that the Panthers will lose at some point this season, and a road game on a short week is a prime time to do it. Tony Romo does make the Cowboys a different team, and they’re 3-0 with him under center this season.
Make that 3-1, as the Panthers pick up a win in their first ever Thanksgiving game.
Unfortunately, as a bonus prediction, the Panthers will not clinch a playoff berth this week. While I do have Indianapolis beating Tampa Bay, 27-24, and Atlanta beating Minnesota 24-20, that won’t be enough for the Panthers to clinch a spot. Arizona should easily handle San Francisco to the tune of 36-7, while I like Seattle to pick up a win against Pittsburgh at home, 27-14.
The Panthers will just have to punch their playoff tickets next week.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.