A match-up with a struggling 1-4 team has all the ingredients of a trap game, and Dallas can't afford to take a breath on Sunday in a game they need to begin salvaging their season.
Of course, that is one of the prime ingredients of a trap game. And looking at the teams the Panthers have lost to might make you want to stop and think for a moment. They have lost to the Buccaneers, Giants, Falcons and Seahawks. Three of the four are leading their division or tied for the lead.
Another factor that might lead Dallas to want to check for tripwires is that Carolina is coming off their bye week. And like the Cowboys, the Panthers are looking to get things headed in the right direction before the season gets too far along. This is not a game to be taken lightly in the parity-driven world of the NFL.
Part of this season's story has been the question of whether 2011 Superrookie Cam Newton is suffering a sophomore slump. He certainly is not putting up very impressive numbers this year, averaging just 214 yards a game passing. The team is ranked twenty-second in the league. Primarily, he is using three targets, WRs Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and TE Greg Olsen. They have 75% of the receiving yardage, with the remainder spread among six other players.
However, there is a possible wild card in play in WR David Gettis, who was placed on PUP and should be playing in his first game of the season against Dallas. The Panthers have had a problem getting receivers open deep, and they are hoping Gettis may provide some ability to stretch the field. Dallas is fortunate that Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins both look to be available for the game after getting nicked a bit in Baltimore.
The rushing game is a little above average, ranking thirteenth. The leading rusher: Cam Newton, who is only averaging 42 yards a game, but 5.2 yards a carry. The other primary rushers are DeAngelo Williams, who has the most carries but only a 3.6 yards/carry average, and Johnathan Stewart, who averages 4.3 yards per carry. There is no one with the team that looks to provide a challenge on the level of Ray Rice.
Things may be a little rough up front for Carolina. Their Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil is out for the season due to foot surgery. Geoff Hangartner will take his place. The eight year veteran played two years at center with the Buffalo Bills as well as in college, but he has most recently been playing right guard at Carolina, which was his position when he first came into the league. Jay Ratliff may have a much better day. The loss, at least for this game, of Sean Lissemore, will hopefully be offset by the return of Marcus Spears, because this would look like an opportunity for the Cowboys to establish control of the line when the Panthers have the ball.
The Panthers look to be vulnerable on defense, ranking below average against both the pass (nineteenth) and the run (twenty-third). How the Cowboys can do will largely depend on how things carry over this week, especially on the offensive line. If the line plays the way it did against the Ravens, keeping Tony Romo largely upright and opening holes for the running game, Dallas should be able to move the ball well. Felix Jones is going to have to shoulder the load, but he showed he still has some flash to his game.
The best player on the Panthers defense may be rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has been very impressive. He is second on the team in tackles, and has an interception. If he is still a year away from being the defensive standout, then it is probably the other outside linebacker James Anderson, who leads the team in tackles. But beyond the linebacking corps, the Panthers defense would appear to be one that Dallas can outplay.
However, appearances are not important. Cam Newton can be dangerous. And Dallas can and has shot itself squarely in the foot on many occasions. There were a lot of positive signs in the Ravens game for the Cowboys, but in this case, the whole was much less than the sum of the parts. Dallas must play a consistent, coherent game. They must have discipline, and all eleven players on the field at any given time have to do their job, top to bottom. This is very close to a must win game for the Cowboys, and they cannot afford to look past the Panthers.