Our countdown of the biggest moments in Carolina Panthers history is rolling right along. We’re up to number four. (Like nobody was looking at the headline of this story.)
Thus far, we’ve covered great games and great performances. There have been franchise-changing moments.
The number four moment was exactly that – a moment that would set into motion change that would forever alter the course of two teams.
#4. NFC Divisional Playoffs – Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers, January 5, 1997
This game was a matchup of amazing stories.
First, the Carolina Panthers had accomplished what no other second-year expansion team in NFL history had ever achieved – they had won their division and had done so in impressive fashion. they had swept the vaunted San Francisco 49ers and had posted a 12-4 record.
The Dallas Cowboys had struggled after winning the previous year’s Super Bowl defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 1996 season was tough as they would begin the year 2-3 and finished 10-6 barely edging out the Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC East.
The Panthers had earned a first-round bye while the Cowboys had defeated the Minnesota Vikings the week prior. The stage was set for Carolina to host their first playoff game in the fledgling franchise’s history.
Michael Irvin would suffer a broken collarbone on Dallas’ second offensive play when linebacker Lamar Lathon would drill him into the turf. The champs were already without defensive tackle Leon Lett who was serving a drug suspension. It didn’t end there. The Dallas misery continued with a head injury to Deion Sanders late in the game.
Aikman would throw three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter, while trying to force the ball in to receivers who had seldom seen action during the season. Dallas would drive inside the Carolina 5 yard line four times and would only manage one touchdown.
“It was the same story all year long,” Cowboys Coach Barry Switzer said. “We get down into scoring position and can’t get it in the end zone. It finally caught up with us. Our offense really struggled after losing Michael.”
The Panthers offense, meanwhile, did nearly everything right. Kerry Collins would throw two touchdown passes – a one-yard pass to Wesley Walls in the first quarter and a ten-yard pass to Willie Green in the second quarter.
The Carolina rushing attack was also solid as Anthony Johnson posted 104 yards on 26 carries.
“What you saw out there is the essence of what our football team has been all year,” Carolina Coach Dom Capers said. “We play as a team and believe in one another. We hung in there.”
Still, the Cowboys were in it until the very end. They trailed by 23-17 when Aikman threw a deep pass down the left sideline for Kevin Williams. Aikman may have had Williams open for an instant, but safety Pat Terrell intercepted the ball (pictured) and returned it 49 yards to crush the final threat by the Cowboys.
The big difference in this game was the Carolina defense. They harrassed Troy Aikman all day. The two interceptions in the fourth quarter sealed the deal. Sam Mills would also make a pick.
This game held a tremendous amount of historic significance.
The Cowboys dynasty was ending – they would finish 6-10 the following year. The playoff win the week before is still the last time their franchise has won a playoff game. They have since gone 0-5, ironically losing one game to the Carolina Panthers in the 2003 playoffs.
It was the expansion team that was headed to the NFC Championship Game versus the Green Bay Packers – a game they would lose 30-13 on the frozen tundra. The 5 years that followed saw the team struggle to a combined 27-53 record with no playoffs appearances. Dom Capers would be fired, George Seifert would be hired and fired all leading to the eventual hiring of current head coach, John Fox.
A wild, turbulent season ended for the Dallas Cowboys that afternoon as the Carolina Panthers rode a tidal wave of emotion and big plays into the NFC championship game. That their 26-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions was easier than virtually anyone expected made the day even more joyous for the roaring sellout crowd of 72,808 at Ericsson Stadium.
In one of the more humbling moments for a franchise not known for its humility, the battered and defeated Cowboys trudged off the field just as the the Panthers were returning for a victory lap that drew waves of roaring approval.