Dallas Cowboys came into this showdown on a two-game winning streak, but in facing the undefeated Carolina Panthers, Dak Prescott and company would have to contend with the league’s No. 1 defense in both yards and points allowed.
So much for that. In front of a sellout home crowd, the Cowboys muscled their way to an impressive 36-28 victory, firmly giving notice that this team is indeed a contender.
Last week, the Cowboys dominated the Eagles in the first half, jumping out to a 20-7 lead that Philadelphia could never overcome. This week, however, the Panthers went toe-to-toe with Dallas in the first half, only to have the Cowboys explode for 23 unanswered points in the second half to pull away.
Prescott would throw three touchdown passes alone in the third quarter, becoming just the first Cowboys quarterback to toss three or more scores in a single quarter since Tony Romo did so against St. Louis on Sept. 30, 2007. Prescott finished the game with only 188 passing yards, completing 14 of just 22 attempts, but he threw four touchdowns overall on the day for a passer rating of 130.3.
Instead, the offensive engine was driven by the ground game. Behind their road graders up front, the Cowboys rushed for 245 yards, Ezekiel Elliott leading the way with 143 yards, the seventh-highest total of his career. Tony Pollard added another 67 with Prescott chipping in 35.
But while the Cowboys offense might have garnered the spotlight with its performance, don’t forget the effort of the Dallas defense. Randy Gregory spearheaded the effort with two sacks and four quarterback hits with Trevon Diggs adding two more interceptions to his total. Rookies Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa combined for a sack with fellow freshman Micah Parsons posting a sack of his own.
It took a series to get going, but on the Cowboys’ second possession of the game, the big boys up front decided it was time to get to work. Dallas ran the ball eight times in the nine play drive, which included a 15-yard scramble by Prescott. Elliott showed both power and speed, churning out 35 yards on four carries, the last a 1-yard push into the end zone for the first points of the game.
Carolina’s No. 1 ranked defense came into the day allowing just 45 yards per game. Seven and a half minutes into this one and Dallas already had 66 yards on the ground.
The Panthers quickly answered, though, as they marched down the field just as easily on their next possession. Sam Darnold connected with wideout D.J. Moore three times for a total of 47 yards before the quarterback reached the end zone himself, cutting inside on an option for the 1-yard touchdown to tie things up.
Tight end Blake Jarwin got into the end zone for the first time this season with an 18-yard touchdown catch, capping off a drive that began late in the first quarter. Admittedly, the Cowboys got lucky during the series as twice fellow tight end Dalton Schultz appeared to fumble, but in both cases he was instead ruled down before losing the ball. Unfortunately, the luck didn’t hold up, as Schultz was ruled down before he reached the end zone on a two-point conversion, Dallas’ lead only 13-7.
The Cowboys defense just couldn’t get off the field on the Panthers’ next possession. The visitors faced third-and-12 and third-and-11 during their offensive march only to convert the first down on both. That led to Darnold taking a quarterback draw 11 yards up the middle for the touchdown. With the extra point, Carolina had its first lead of the game, an advantage that held up until halftime.
Less than five minutes into the second half, however, the Cowboys were back on top. And by the end of the third quarter they had put the game away.
After the Panthers missed a 54-yard field goal on their first possession of the third quarter, Dallas was set up with good field position at its own 44-yard line. Four plays later, the home side was in the end zone.
Elliott pounded the defense on three straight runs for a combined 21 yards before Prescott went deep down the right sideline to wide receiver Amari Cooper, who hauled in the pass under heavy coverage for the 35-yard score.
Four plays was all Dallas needed on its next series as well. Schultz got the touchdown honors, but Elliott again did the heavy lifting. This time he broke through the line of scrimmage, darted to the right sideline and raced 47 yards to the Carolina 6-yard line, the third-longest run of his career and his longest since ripping off a 55-yarder on Dec. 26, 2016, against Detroit. The Cowboys missed the two-point try, but owned a two-possession lead, 26-14.
And then Trevon Diggs did what Trevon Diggs does, picking off passes on each of the Panthers’ next two series, the second multi-interception game of his career. Diggs extended his streak of consecutive games with a pick to four and became only the second player in team history, and just the 17th in league record books since the NFL merger, to intercept five passes through four games.
The first of those led to a 23-yard touchdown pass to Cedrick Wilson, who used a nifty spin move to reach pay dirt.
Following Diggs’ second interception, the Cowboys worked their way to Carolina’s 20-yard line before Greg Zuerlein came out for a 37-yard field goal on the first snap of the fourth quarter. He easily split the uprights to extend Dallas’ lead to 36-14.
And that’s when things got interesting. Just when the Cowboys seemingly had the game wrapped up, Carolina battled back with 14 unanswered points of their own to narrow the deficit to just eight, 36-28.
The Panthers quickly responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to the end zone, Darnold finishing off the possession with a 6-yard completion to tight end Ian Thomas for the touchdown.
That was followed by the visitors adding another score on a seven play, 80-yard series that saw Darnold throw an 8-yard dart to Moore for the easy score with still just over four and a half minutes remaining on the clock.
But with the Panthers out of timeouts, the Cowboys put the game away when on third-and-1 at the Carolina 41-yard line, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called up the perfect play. Prescott handed off to Elliott, who then with his path around the right end blocked, pitched the ball to Pollard who picked up 5 yards needed to get the first down and cement the victory.