Cowboys - Panthers Preview & Prediction

Quarterback Tony Romo is ready and excited to make his first start since his senior year at Eastern Illinois. However, playing against the Panthers and defensive end Julius Peppers is quite a bit different than playing Western Illinois in the Division I-AA playoffs.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET


TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer

SERIES: 9th meeting. Dallas leads series 5-3. Dallas has won five of the last six meetings. Dallas and Carolina met in a 1996 Divisional Playoff Game and a 2003 Wild Card Game, with the Panthers claiming victories in both.

2006 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 5th (5th rush, 11th pass); defense 8th (4th rush, 16th pass). Panthers: offense 20th (25th rush, 16th pass); defense 17th (20th rush, 17th pass)

PREDICTION: Panthers 23-21

KEYS TO THE GAME: Cowboys QB Tony Romo showed promise and inexperience when he took over for benched Drew Bledsoe on Monday night. For Dallas to get more of the former and less of the latter in Romo's first NFL start, the Cowboys must get a strong game from RB Julius Jones. One of the reasons coach Bill Parcells has turned to Romo is his mobility, which could come in handy behind a shaky offensive line that has to contend with DE Julius Peppers. If Romo can buy some extra time with his feet, there might be a few big plays to be had. Allowing big plays has been the Cowboys' nemesis defensively. Ss Pat Watkins and Roy Williams have struggled to provide help over the top, which is a scary proposition against Panthers WR Steve Smith. While Carolina has the big-play threat, it also has had far too many drives stall with the league's worst third-down offense converting just 23.5 percent. The Cowboys' front seven is very stout and the Panthers could find it difficult to move the ball on the ground.

FAST FACTS: Cowboys: WR Terrell Owens has moved past Andre Rison for 21st place all-time with 744 career receptions. ... Begin a three-game road stretch. Panthers: Are 8-3 in their past 11 games decided by eight points or less. ... Smith is averaging 103.1 receiving yards per game since the start of the 2005 season.

PERSONNEL NEWS: Cowboys: --QB Drew Bledsoe might have started his last game in the NFL. This is almost certainly his last year. Bledsoe, benched in favor of Tony Romo, is signed through next season when he will count $7 million against the salary cap. That includes a $1 million roster bonus due in March. Look for the Cowboys to make a decision on Bledsoe's future shortly after the season. Bledsoe certainly will not want to return as a backup.

--QB Tony Romo is the ninth starting quarterback for the Cowboys since Troy Aikman retired in 2000, joining Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson, Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner, Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe.

--FS Keith Davis has been cleared to play after missing Monday's game with a sprained ankle. Davis could find himself replacing mistake-prone rookie Pat Watkins in the starting lineup.

--FS Pat Watkins might lose his starting job after continued poor play in the passing game. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said Watkins has given up five big plays this season, and he is looking at using Marcus Coleman or Keith Davis at free safety against the Panthers.

--DE Jason Hatcher remains sidelined with a sprained ankle. He has not practiced all week and won't play against the Panthers.

Panthers: --SLB Thomas Davis practiced for the second consecutive day on Thursday and is expected to start Sunday night against the Cowboys. The Panthers can use all of the playmakers they can get on defense against the Cowboys. Davis missed last week's game with bruised ribs.

--C Justin Hartwig could see his first start since Week 1 this week against the Cowboys. Coach John Fox said he'll make a game-time decision between Hartwig and Geoff Hangartner, who has started the past five games at center. The conventional thinking is, now that Hartwig is healthy and the team's winning streak is over, the Panthers will go back to Hartwig, in whom they invested $17 million in the offseason.

--RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle) is questionable for Sunday's game and did not practice Thursday.

--WR Steve Smith was limited to one catch last year against the Cowboys and was kicked out of the game for grabbing an official around the waist.

--CB Ken Lucas should have a shot at some interceptions with the Cowboys starting Tony Romo at quarterback. But Lucas will have his hands full with either Terrell Owens or Terry Glenn. Lucas left last week's game with a hip injury but has practiced all this week.

--CB Richard Marshall will return to the No. 3 cornerback spot with Ken Lucas expected to play this week.

INSIDE THE CAMPS: Cowboys: Quarterback Tony Romo is ready and excited to make his first start since his senior year at Eastern Illinois.

However, playing against the Panthers and defensive end Julius Peppers is quite a bit different than playing Western Illinois in the Division I-AA playoffs.

Although Cowboys coach Bill Parcells believes Romo is ready for the challenge and remains hopeful that the young QB can spearhead a turnaround for a team that was going nowhere with Drew Bledsoe at the helm, Parcells admits the unknown factor surrounding Romo's pedigree and experience gives the Cowboys no guarantee.

"Nervous?" Parcells said. "I don't think that would be the right word. I am anxious to see what is going to happen. That would be an honest assessment."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is also trying his best to look at the positives of the move. He said Romo brings mobility and a quicker release to the position and hopes the move is just what the team needs to make something of its season with 10 games remaining.

But he's also realistic about the state of the Cowboys that brought about the quarterback change after six games.

When Jones built the Cowboys in the offseason and predicted that they had what it takes to make this a special season, he did so with idea of having a veteran quarterback at the helm.

That the Cowboys have had to make a change is a setback in his mind. It means things have not gone as expected, which is a disappointment.

As a result, he has had to ratchet down his expectations for the season.

He remains hopeful. But he is also realistic.

"I have to be a realist," Jones said. "But I'm not in any way thinking with the amount of games that we have left with the team we have with the plusses that Tony could bring to us, I'm not in any way dismissing the possibilities of this year.

"But I want you to know it would have been a lot harder thing for me to accept ... if this would have meant we were junking this season and just putting the team together for the future." Panthers: Panthers rookie running back DeAngelo Williams was held out of Thursday's practice, casting even more doubt on his availability for Sunday night's game against the Cowboys.

It was unlikely Williams would play this week anyway.

Williams, who sat out the last two games, participated in a small portion of Wednesday's practice, but team doctors decided to keep him out Thursday to allow him to rest his sprained ankle.

Although he remained questionable Thursday on the team's injury report, don't expect to see Williams play this week. He's only practiced once in the past three weeks, and the Panthers have a bye next week, so the team probably won't risk him getting injured when he could be back to full speed after the week off.

Meanwhile, DeShaun Foster will carry the load again this week for the Panthers.

Foster is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this season and has scored only one touchdown. He's struggled in short-yardage situations, one of the reasons the Panthers haven't done well converting third downs this year.

After running for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games against New Orleans and Cleveland, Foster has stumbled the past two weeks, held to 58 yards on 26 carries by the Ravens and 59 yards on 14 carries last week against the Bengals.

CowboysHQ Top Stories