Inside slant: Carolina Week 16 preview

Here's the "Inside Slant," your twice-weekly source for news about the Bucs' NFC South rivals. Today's edition previews Week 16's games, including personnel news, analysis and insider matchups for the Carolina Panthers. It's a premium service from Bucsblitz.com.

Carolina fans were thrilled with the performance of rookie quarterback Matt Moore last week against Seattle.

Of course, now they want to know why Moore wasn't the starter the previous week. Or last month.

The only way to answer that is this way -- Moore wasn't ready.

Quite frankly, he still isn't.

The only reason Moore played on Sunday is because the Panthers were completely out of other options. Vinny Testaverde could barely walk and David Carr has been a mess this season.

Moore will start Sunday against Dallas, whether Testaverde is ready or not.

There's no way the Panthers can bench him now.

He didn't make mistakes. He ran the offense pretty well. He made good decisions and even checked down on a few routes to make some decent plays.

But before anyone gets carried away, realize that Moore is still a young kid learning the game. The reality is all rookie quarterbacks need time to watch, time to digest NFL offenses and the complicated defensive schemes they confront.

The Panthers simplified things dramatically on offense Sunday, and don't forget, they didn't score any points until the fourth quarter. The defense kept the Panthers in the game and allowed the offense to continue to mix run and pass. If Carolina's defense had allowed seven or 10 points, Moore might have been forced to throw more, and it might have been a different game.

The defense played outstanding and, given the circumstances, so did Moore.

But Moore's performance should be kept in perspective.

"He's a guy we've been working with for a short time," coach John Fox said. "He had a great week of preparation. The veteran guys were really good with him as far as in that preparation. Our offensive staff, Mike McCoy and Jeff Davidson, did an outstanding job. He had some rough spots, but he made some good throws.

"We've seen him throw the ball. It's just when and where that is critical for a young quarterback. He operated pretty good (Sunday) for his first outing."

What Moore has shown is he could be a viable backup next season, or at least a guy who is worth cultivating.

To think he's going to compete for a starting job next season is a little crazy.

SERIES HISTORY

10th meeting. Cowboys lead series 6-3. Last year at Bank of America Stadium, the Cowboys overcame a 14-point second half deficit and scored 35 consecutive points to rout the Panthers 35-14.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Expect Mike Rucker to get a huge ovation Saturday night.

There's a good chance it will be Rucker's final home game at Bank of America Stadium.

The nine-year veteran said he hasn't made up his mind yet if he'll hang it up, but he reiterated it is something he'll think about after the season. Rucker's contract is up after the season, and he said last month that he won't play for anyone but the Panthers.

"Whenever that decision is made, I want to make sure it's right," Rucker said. "I don't want to be one of those guys who are flip-flopping back and forth. So I'm taking time to enjoy these games and taking that approach that every game could be my last game."

--Despite Minnesota's win over Chicago, the Panthers are the only 6-8 NFC team not yet eliminated from playoff contention. But their hopes of reaching the postseason went from bad to worse following the Vikings' victory. Basically, they need nothing short of a miracle to pull it off.

Here's what would need to happen for the Panthers to still get in:

1. The Panthers would have to win their final two games (vs. Dallas, at Tampa Bay).

2. The Vikings (8-6) would have to lose their final two games (vs. Washington, at Denver)

3. Washington (7-7) has to lose at home in Week 17 to Dallas.

4. New Orleans (7-7) has to lose one of its final two games (vs. Philadelphia, at Chicago)

If all that happens, the Panthers would get in at 8-8 over Minnesota, Washington and New Orleans because they would have the best conference record of any of those teams.

--The Panthers not only didn't have any players voted to the Pro Bowl, but they didn't have any first or second alternates either.

The best the Panthers could do was three third alternates: OT Jordan Gross, G Mike Wahle and K John Kasay.

"I think Jordan Gross has played very well this year," coach John Fox said. "Sometimes when you're not having success win-loss wise, those kinds of performances go unnoticed. But I think this is the first time that he's had any recognition as far as Pro Bowl balloting, and it was good to see."

BY THE NUMBERS: 0

Career touchdown passes for rookie QB Matt Moore, whose popularity is on the rise in Carolina.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"I heard I was the (Pro Bowl) alternate to Devin. They don't list the alternates for kick returners, though." -- Panthers OG Geoff Hangartner, who doubles as the team's up back on kickoff returns, joking about his 14-yard average on kickoff returns.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker out of practice, youngsters Charles Johnson and Stanley McClover received extra reps at defensive end.

"They're both young players, Stanley being a second-year guy and Charles being a rookie, that we thought well enough of to draft," coach John Fox said. "It's just, much like any position, getting that game experience.

"I think if you go through NFL rosters, it's not 100 percent, but there is not a huge percentage of rookies starting and performing at high levels. (Minnesota RB) Adrian Peterson, obviously, is one guy that comes to mind. What Jon Beason has done, and the same thing with (Patrick) Willis out in San Francisco. But that's a very small percentage when you go through all 32 teams in the league and their starting rosters. Again, like anything else, the more you do it. the better you get. Getting them that experience helps all of them."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Matt Moore will start for the Panthers against the Cowboys.

--QB Vinny Testaverde is back at practice, but he is not expected to start.

--RG Geoff Hangartner has replaced Jeremy Bridges as the starter. According to some inside the team, Bridge's tooth problem was not the reason Bridges was benched. The team wanted to get a look at Hangartner.

--WR Steve Smith, who sat out Tuesday with an illness, returned to practice Wednesday.

--WR Keary Colbert (knee) did not practice Wednesday and is not expected to play this week.

--C Justin Hartwig returned to practice Wednesday after sitting out Tuesday with an ankle injury.

GAME PLAN

The Panthers will look to run a lot of three- and five-step drops against the Cowboys with rookie Matt Moore at quarterback. They will keep things simple for the rookie, who is clearly still learning the offense. Defensively, the Panthers will look to tie up Terrell Owens with double coverage and somehow try to stop the Cowboys running game.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Panthers RBs Julius Jones and Marion Barber vs. Panthers front seven. Barber and Jones combined for three rushing touchdowns in the second half of last year's meeting with the Panthers, as the Cowboys turned a 14-point deficit into a 35-14 win. It was one of the biggest collapses in Carolina history.

INJURY IMPACT

DE Julius Peppers missed his second consecutive day of practice Wednesday with a sprained knee. His status for Saturday night's game against the Cowboys remains up in the air. Peppers injured his knee during Sunday's win over Seattle.

WR Keary Colbert (knee) and DE Mike Rucker (illness) were also held out of practice.

S Chris Harris (hip) participated on a limited basis.

G Geoff Hangartner (shoulder), C Justin Hartwig (ankle), DT Kindal Moorehead (ankle) and WR Steve Smith (illness) returned to practice Wednesday.


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