Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys open the season on the road in an NFC showdown against Cam Newton and the Panthers
The Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers will kick off their 2018 regular-season campaigns on Sunday inside Bank of America Stadium in one of the more intriguing matchups for Week 1. Both teams have legitimate postseason aspirations in 2018. And this game could prove to have serious playoff implications at season’s end.
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The Panthers will be facing an uphill battle competing in what should be a hotly contested NFC South once again in 2018. However, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Despite finishing third in the division behind New Orleans and Atlanta last season, Carolina rebounded nicely from a disastrous 2016 to win 11 games and earn a playoff berth. The Panthers should be able to repeat that feat if all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. A big piece to that puzzle could be new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. If Turner can breathe new life into the Panthers offense and quarterback Cam Newton, there could be great things on the horizon for Carolina. But first, Turner’s offense will need to get past a rash of offseason injuries along the offensive line.
The Cowboys took a step in the wrong direction last season, following up a 13-win season and an NFC East title in 2016 with a disappointing 9-win campaign and no playoffs in 2017. Jason Garrett’s squad now looks to regain its dominant status in the NFC on the strength of its offensive line, a power run game led by Ezekiel Elliott and a stout front seven on defense. The Cowboys still have question marks on both sides of the football, as well as on special teams after cutting kicker Dan Bailey. And answers will need to come in short order for Dak Prescott and the passing game after losing standouts Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Regardless, the Cowboys enter the 2018 NFL season with the confidence that they have everything in place to make a serious run. Sunday’s road matchup against the Panthers will be a challenging first test.
Dallas at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Panthers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Panthers’ offensive line
Carolina has high hopes for its offense in 2018 under new coordinator Norv Turner. A receiving corps led by tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Devin Funchess was bolstered by the offseason additions of Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright and first-round pick D.J. Moore. The Panthers also are encouraged by the addition of 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson (replaces Jonathan Stewart) to go along with the vast potential of versatile second-year back Christian McCaffrey. It’s a promising group, and the sum of these parts might just give Cam Newton the best compliment of weapons that he has ever had in Carolina.
There is only one problem, and that problem potentially looms large heading into Week 1 — an injury-plagued offensive line. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil was recently placed on injured reserve (knee), along with another potential starter in Jeremiah Sirles (hamstring). Starting right tackle Daryl Williams is highly questionable for Sunday’s game, just one month removed from a torn MCL and dislocated kneecap. Yet another potential starter in guard Amini Silatolu (knee) remains highly questionable for Week 1 as well. That leaves the cupboard pretty bare for a Panthers offensive line that was already considered shaky after losing All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell to free agency.
It also could prove to be a serious liability against an imposing Cowboys front seven led by pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Lawrence (14.5 sacks last season) and elite linebacker Sean Lee. Newton's elusiveness will go a long way helping the Panthers avoid catastrophic failure on offense. And there is a chance that Carolina’s revamped offensive line performs better than expected. That being said, Turner may need to get very creative for this offense to find success on Sunday.
2. Life after Dez Bryant and Jason Witten
Dak Prescott took a noticeable step back in his second season under center for the Cowboys. And the Dallas passing attack was rarely hitting on all cylinders even with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in the lineup. So, it stands to reason that there is legitimate concern for a passing game set to embark on the 2018 campaign without its top two receiving options from last season. That also creates a tremendous amount of intrigue entering Sunday’s matchup against the Panthers.
It’s difficult to predict with any degree of certainty how well a revamped Dallas receiving corps will fare in Week 1. We do know that it will take more than Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley to fill the void left by Bryant and Witten. The hope is that former Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns and rookie Michael Gallup can step up to provide the spark the Cowboys passing game desperately needs to succeed.
In 2015, Hurns racked up 1,031 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns with Blake Bortles as his trigger man. It’s plausible that a healthy Hurns could return to form with the benefit of Prescott and a fresh start in Dallas. Meanwhile, Gallup has flashed elite ability at times during camp and in the preseason. The Cowboys hope to benefit from the additions of Tavon Austin and Deonte Thompson as well.
From a matchup perspective, the Panthers will most likely stack the box to slow Ezekiel Elliott. That should provide some opportunities for Prescott to showcase his new-look receiving corps and possibly make a statement in Week 1. If Carolina has a potential weakness on defense, it most certainly lies in the secondary, where third-year cornerback James Bradberry headlines a group comprised mostly of aging veterans and unproven rookies. Bradberry is coming off a 2017 season in which he graded out at No. 109 among 120 qualifiers at cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.
3. Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas offensive line vs. the Carolina front seven
The passing attack could very well prove to be an x-factor for the Cowboys on Sunday. However, there is no doubt that the success of the Cowboys' offense will be predicated on their ability to effectively run the football. The combination of Ezekiel Elliott and an elite offensive line gives the Cowboys an excellent chance to do just that. But it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion with a formidable Carolina front seven standing in the way.
The Panthers perennially feature one of the top run defenses in the NFL, and 2018 looks to be no different. Carolina surrendered a mere 88.1 rushing yards per game in 2017 (No. 3 in the NFL), allowing just seven rushing touchdowns on the year. More importantly, Carolina was the only team in the NFL that did not allow a single 100-yard rusher last season. In fact, the Panthers haven’t allowed an individual running back to reach the 100-yard mark in any of their last 20 contests.
The Cowboys were 4-1 in games in which Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 100 yards or more last season. When the star running back failed to reach the century mark on the ground, Dallas compiled a record of just 2-3. If there is a running back capable of breaking Carolina’s 20-game streak, it’s Elliott. But he will have his work cut out for him, even with an imposing offensive line leading the way against the likes of All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Kawann Short. It should make for a compelling matchup between elite forces.
This matchup will most likely come down to which team has the upper hand in the trenches. As of now, that team appears to be the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas will surely have a tough row to hoe on offense. And the Cowboys’ offensive line may struggle at times to pave the way for Ezekiel Elliott against a stingy Panthers front. But an injury-riddled Panthers offensive line could spell serious trouble for Cam Newton and company on Sunday.
The Carolina offense probably has a better complement of weapons overall. But it’s a no-brainer when comparing these two offensive lines in their current state. That should give the Cowboys the edge they need to squeak out a close win on the road.
Prediction: Cowboys 21, Panthers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.