Round 1: Cowboys Face Panthers

The Cowboys (10-6) face the Panthers (11-5) in the wildcard playoffs tonight in the continuation of a miraculous year. After all, they are in the playoffs for the first time in four years and this after three straight 5-11 seasons.

Yet, Bill Parcells is nervous heading to the playoffs because he remains bewildered by his youthful team.

"When you look around your team and ask yourself, 'How many of these guys think the proper way about the game and have a good understanding?' That's where I have the collective thought of, 'Gee whiz, there is a lot of work to do along those lines,'" Parcells said. "And there is."

Parcells hates their inconsistency.

He thought silly mistakes like false starts had been stripped down to a bare minimum, only to watch them and penalties like them hamstring his team Sunday. He thought his players had finally figured what's what, until defensive end Eric Ogbogu raced onto the field without his helmet.

He thought the Cowboys were ready for the playoffs, then they laid a 13-7-loss-to-the-Saints-sized-egg Sunday.

"I told them after the game: 'If we don't play well, first of all, we could never beat a good team, and certainly any team in the league would have a really good chance to beat us.' That's where we are right now," Parcells said. "Even though our record says a little differently, I know for a fact that's where we are."

What he also told them was, "Not a whole lot of it matters right now."

It doesn't matter if they are really as good as their 10-6 record.

It doesn't matter if their last game was a stinker.

"What matters is what we do this week," linebacker Dexter Coakley said. What they have to do is not make mistakes, turnovers or otherwise. "We cannot make mistakes and have the turnovers," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We're not a team that can do that."

The perfect example is quarterback Quincy Carter. Parcells has been on him all year about not making impulse decisions, not doing things that cost his team the game. Yet, late in Sunday's game, with Dallas struggling to mount a final rally, Carter dropped back and held the ball and held the ball and held the ball as precious seconds ticked from the clock.

The cameras caught Parcells, on the sideline, as this was happening. "Throw it, throw it," he screamed. When Carter did finally throw it, way out of bounds, Parcells' lips were easy enough to read.

"Stupid," he said. The next word out of his mouth is not printable. "I think the thing that disappoints him is the inconsistency," Carter said. "We can come out and play good against some very good football teams, and other weeks we don't play very well. So I can understand where his disappointment comes in. We don't go out each and every week and play well."

What matters is which Cowboys team shows up this week. The Cowboys who beat the Panthers in Week 11? Or the Cowboys who spit the bit four days later against the Dolphins?

SERIES HISTORY: 7th meeting. Dallas leads the series 4-2 and have won the last four contests, including 24-20 on Nov. 23. Dallas won 16-13 at Carolina, Oct. 13, 2001. The Panthers won in a 1996 divisional playoff game.

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