Who's Number One, Baby?

Over a three-week period in late November and early December the lead for the NFC will be determined between three teams. The Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers, and the Dallas Cowboys all vie for that coveted spot. And the possibility of a first round bye in the play-offs.

Dallas hosted the Panthers at Texas Stadium Sunday, the first leg in this mini play-off for top dog bragging rights. Dallas took the early lead in the race by defeating their guests from Carolina by the score of 24-20. This was a team effort, and showed that when all cylinders are firing, the Cowboys can be an effective and dangerous team.

Stephen Davis came into this game as the 4th best ground gainer in the entire league. The Panthers have the philosophy that they will run between the tackles and dare other teams to stop them. With Davis' almost 1100-yards before Sunday, their tactic was highly successful. But they had yet to face the number one defense in the league.

Led by an emerging star in Dat Nguyen, the Cowboys out muscled the Panthers, holding Davis to a mere 59-yards on 26 carries. Davis' whopping 4.6-yard per carry suffered as he could muster only a 2.2 yard average.

"That's what it's all about," said a please LeRoi Glover after shutting down one of the top backs in the league.

But Dallas didn't only hold Davis to a season low, they also held the Panthers to 175-yards passing. The team defense only miscues were on two deep balls throw against Terence Newman. Followed by two questionable pass interference calls resulting in two touchdowns. Newman will need work on locating the under throw and the refs will need work on what constitutes pass interference.

In both cases an all out blitz left Newman on an island, similar to the game against the Patriots. Both times he was beaten as a harassed Jake Delhomme threw up the ball. Without safety help, Newman lost to a more experienced players. Dallas may rethink this and leave a safety deep for support if they plan to assault the quarterback successfully.

But the real surprise and reason Dallas won was the offense. A group that hadn't scored the week before, and had been struggling, found its rhythm against a tough Panther defense. Led by the passing game, a departure from the normal grind it out style Parcells had incorporated this season, Quincy Carter threw for 254-yards on a 29 of 44 day.

"We had to throw more today," Parcells said in the post game interview. "Because I felt we might have some trouble running against these guys."

Yet maybe the most imaginative play was a running play that put the Cowboys ahead to stay late in the third quarter.

Carter lined up and led the team on a nice drive with a terrific pass to Terry Glenn for 24-yards that ended up on the Panther 25. After a great pass to Jason Witten, who caught 6 for 49-yards and is emerging as a true tight-end threat Dallas has sorely lacked, Troy Hambrick added a two-yard run.

Facing third and one from the Carolina 16 Dallas ran a toss sweep to Richie Anderson. As the defense collapsed on him, he tossed the ball to Aveion Cason in a stylized quarterback option play. Cason went untouched into the endzone giving Dallas a lead they would hold.

"I was shocked when that play came in," Cason said. But it was this type of creative play calling that kept Dallas in front all day long. Earlier, after a Roy Williams interception off an Eric Ogbogu pass deflection, which ended at the Panther 11-yard line, Dallas fooled Carolina by using long snapper Jeff Robinson, an emergency tight end. He ran a delayed route to the back of the endzone and Quincy Carter threw a sizzling pass that only he could catch.

"They have a heck of a defense," Robinson said. "You just can't knock them off the ball." But you can fool them when they over pursue, which allowed the Cowboys to throw underneath all day.

Carter's journeyman work had as much to do with this win as anyone. While his accuracy is still iffy at times, he does deliver when needed. The pass to Robinson was a big time throw in a clutch moment in the game.

"This is by far the best win I've had in Dallas," Bill Parcells added. "I am proud of them. It was a tremendous game." He was hoarse and soft-spoken after the victory, and almost speechless by the team's performance.

"They're not losers anymore." He said of the Cowboys. "We're something else."

That something else was summed up by Dat Nguyen as he walked the sidelines in the final moments of the game. "Who's number one, baby?" he asked teammates as he passed.

With Carolina facing the Eagles next Sunday, and Dallas heading to Philadelphia December 7th, the Dallas Cowboys are number one in the NFC…baby! For now, anyway.

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