Last season, the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys combined for 11 wins. After their game on Sunday — four weeks into the season — they will be more than halfway to that total.
The Cowboys were a popular bounce-back team with the return of quarterback Dak Prescott from ankle and shoulder surgeries, but few saw the Panthers as contenders in Year 2 under head coach Matt Rhule. Their schedule has been weak thus far with wins over the Jets, Saints, and Texans, but Carolina is one of just five undefeated teams left in the NFL.
With strong starts, this game has surprising playoff implications. A 2-1 mark and weak division gives the Cowboys 75.7 percent playoff odds, per Football Outsiders, while the Panthers are up to 51.0 percent. And if they both finish with the same record, this game will serve as the tiebreaker.
Can the Cowboys slow down Sam Darnold and Carolina, who have three extra days to rest and prepare after playing on "Thursday Night Football" last week? It may be a while before a team with a winning record faces the Panthers before their Week 13 bye, with upcoming games against the Eagles, Vikings, Giants, Falcons, Patriots, Cardinals, Washington, and Dolphins.
Carolina (3-0) at Dallas (2-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Carolina adequately replace McCaffrey?
The Panthers' 24-9 win over the Texans last week was resounding but also Pyrrhic — they lost star running back Christian McCaffrey in the second quarter to a strained hamstring. These minor injuries are occurring all too often, as the 25-year-old missed 13 games last season with ankle and shoulder injuries.
The good news for Carolina is that rookie Chuba Hubbard filled in admirably for McCaffrey last week, picking up 52 yards on 11 carries and adding three receptions for 27 yards. He was a certified star at Oklahoma State when he rushed for 2,094 yards and 21 scores in his sophomore year. Former Bronco Royce Freeman also added 17 yards on five carries, most of which came on a 13-yard rumble.
The Texans don't exactly have the strongest front seven, but it's hard to know what to expect from the Cowboys up front. Opponents have barely run on Dallas (league-low 45 attempts), which is why they rank sixth in run defense. More concerningly, they rank 26th in yards allowed per carry (4.7) after ranking 30th in that category (5.0) in 2020.
Hubbard and Freeman may be able to replicate much of what McCaffrey can do on the ground, but his bigger contribution may be as Darnold's safety valve. McCaffrey ranks second to DJ Moore on the team with 16 receptions and 163 receiving yards, and his presence allowed Darnold to take more check-downs and safe passes.
With McCaffrey sidelined, Darnold may have to push it downfield more. He's been rocking a brilliant 0.9 percent interception rate after sitting at 3.2 percent with the Jets, and it will be interesting to see how he fares as he has to get more aggressive without his top weapon.
2. Do the Panthers have the depth to slow Prescott?
Dallas' playoff chances hinged on Prescott's health and effectiveness, and through three weeks he's looked every bit like the Pro Bowl passer of old. Prescott leads the NFL with a 77.5 percent completion rate and has six touchdowns to two interceptions with 292.7 yards per game.
With apologies to Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston, and Davis Mills, Prescott is by far the best quarterback the Panthers have faced this season. And they'll be taking on this challenge short-handed.
In addition to McCaffrey, the Panthers also lost first-rounder Jaycee Horn to a broken foot and safety Juston Burris to a groin injury in the win over Houston.
Carolina did bring in former Jaguars top-10 pick C.J. Henderson, but he may not be ready to play with less than a week in Rhule's system. And there's a reason Jacksonville gave up on him after just 19 games for little-used tight end Dan Arnold and a swap of draft picks (third-rounder for fifth-rounder).
Prescott looks as effective as ever, and the Panthers will be hard-pressed to slow him down. Any win will have to start with keeping him in somewhat check.
3. The turnover battle
Turnovers will be crucial in any game, but the Cowboys have been the most disruptive team in the league this season (8 turnovers) while the Panthers have only given the ball away twice. This isn't quite unstoppable force vs. immovable object since we're dealing with tiny sample sizes, but one of these trends will have to end.
As mentioned earlier, it will be fascinating to see how Darnold looks without McCaffrey (and Arnold). Rookie tight end Tommy Tremble has flashed potential and could function as a new safety valve. But Jets fans can attest in the past to what Darnold can look like with little support.
Meanwhile, the Panthers rank first in total, pass, and run defense and second in scoring defense but have not forced many turnovers (3, tied for 17th). Are they the result of a weak schedule, or is this defense for real? Forcing more turnovers, even without Horn, who nabbed a pick in his second game, will be a major key moving forward.
The Cowboys' offense looks like one of the best in the league now that Prescott is back healthy. They even have a two-headed monster at running back with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Carolina statistically appears to have the defense to match them, but Sunday’s game will be a great measuring stick to see if that’s just a mirage.
Similarly, this game will be a great test for Darnold to see how much he’s improved since leaving the Jets, now that he has to win on the road without McCaffrey.
The Panthers can officially be crowned playoff contenders with a win in Dallas to continue their undefeated season, but that may be too much of an ask with the recent injuries.