September 30, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil (67) reacts while blocking Atlanta Falcons strong safety William Moore (25) during the third quarter at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Cowboys at Panthers: What in the World is...?

Dallas has an 8-game winning streak against the Carolina Panthers and need to extend that streak to keep in striking distance of the NFC East lead. They’re currently in sole possession of last place, at 2-3 vs. the leading Giants’ 4-2, 2 games out of first after roughly the first third of the season. Carolina’s division hopes are completely dashed with the Falcons’ 6-0 start and the Panthers’ own horrible one…not to mention what might’ve otherwise been a key win in a possible tiebreaker down the road: the heartbreaking road loss in Atlanta.

Injuries have riddled both squads as well. All-Pro center Ryan Kalil is done for the season and the rumor mill says Jon Beason may go on injured reserve also. RB James Stewart has been nursing nagging injuries and David Gettis is just now getting close to his return after not playing since game one of 2011.

The Cowboys’ interior offensive line is banged up and thin, RB DeMarco Murray is out for the contest, and Dez Bryant will be playing on a gimpy groin. Morris Claiborne is probable after a knee problem. In other words, both teams are dealing with the normal problems of the course of a season.

Due to Murray’s injury, Felix Jones will be starting. He’s not been a durable runner at all in his career, but is healthy now and will start. He’s got zero power but incredible breakaway speed to score on any play. Bryant has been inconsistent all season and near the top of the NFL in dropped passes.

The exact same statement can be made about Panthers’ WR Steve Smith. The Panthers have been inconsistent on both sides of the ball and will be starting rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly at MLB, replacing the injured Beason. It’s the position I’ve said from the start that he belongs playing, but didn’t want him getting the job due to injury of course.

The Panthers’ offensive line is all shifted as well…at least on the right side. Geoff Hangartner takes Kalil’s place at center, calling the signals, and is already versed in doing so. Byron Bell moves inside to right guard, and Garry Williams is starting at right tackle, according to the NFL Network this morning. The depth chart has the two right side players the other way around, so whatever the case is, it should illustrate the uncertainty in the situation if nothing else. It’s a good thing the Panthers had their bye week when they did so that the offense could – hopefully – get some continuity on the line as roles change.

That would be a first for the Panthers this season.

LB Thomas Davis, one of the few “upside” surprises this season, has said himself that the team in general has lacked consistency and used the first week of the bye to do some “self-scouting” and re-examination of what they’re doing.

While one good point could come from this…it could mean a few new looks or changing tendencies and thereby surprise the Cowboys, it also means time taken away from preparing for the team they are about to face. It’s a two-way street.

Marshall Faulk made a great point today. He said that second year QBs are asked to do more, given more tasks to accomplish, but then they’re usually given more to work with. He pointed out they didn’t re-sign TE Jeremy Shockey, leaving Newton with only Greg Olson there to work with. They also didn’t add to their receiving corps despite drafting Joe Adams and adding Louis Murphy – they’re both role-players. They did add Mike Tolbert, but he’s not a game-breaker. He’s a bruiser and a fullback/H-back but not a guy that was ever intended to be anything other than someone they added in a supporting role.

Defensively, they haven’t added playmakers nor gotten many turnovers to help out the offense, causing the team to lose badly in the possession battle…they only keep the ball for 26 minutes per game, which means the other team has it for 34. That’s an 8 minute variance, and unless you have Peyton Manning, it’s not a winning combination.

So what’s the lowdown for this particular game?

The Panthers should try to establish the run, ditching the read-option, and actually put that $80 million backfield to work. The Cowboys are soft inside against the run and the Panthers are built to defeat just this sort of team. The passing game will be very, very difficult to get untracked without the running game being established since the Cowboys have literally three “number one” cornerbacks and are the most talented and deepest team in the NFL at the position.

Therefore, any successful passing game from Newton and the Panthers will necessarily come off of play-action. If the Panthers cannot run today, they cannot win. It’s that simple.

When the ‘Boys have the rock, their approach will be opposite of the Panthers’. Without Murray, they basically start what used to be referred to as a “scatback” and don’t have the ability to be confident in running for the tough yards…the 3rd and short and goal-line situations. With the WRs not being consistent, the Panthers’ defense might actually have a chance at making some plays.

I’d look for Jason Witten to have a big game and it should be an entertaining contest. Since both teams are sloppy with the ball, the turnover margin will be a big deal too. I’d say the team that wins is the one that takes care of the ball the best.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys have the greater ability to move the ball under pressure of time and should give them a slight advantage.

Cowboys win by a field goal.

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