There's a lot the Panthers have to counter following that 24-20 loss in which they were outplayed, out-hustled and out-coached at Texas Stadium.
In that game, Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells came up with the perfect blueprint on how to beat the Panthers. And, in the following two weeks, Philadelphia and Atlanta seemed to copy it, sending the Panthers on a three-game losing skid. Carolina has since recovered winning three straight to close the regular season, but Dallas remains a dangerous wild card team. What did the Cowboys do to shut down the Panthers?
Offensively, quarterback Quincy Carter used short passes underneath the coverage to keep the chains moving. In all, Carter completed 19 of his 29 passes to his tight ends and running backs and finished the day with 254 passing yards and two touchdowns. Carter did most of his damage after halftime, where he completed 17 of 22 passes for 148 yards. His biggest completion came on a third-down throw to tight end Jason Witten in the final two minutes, enabling the Cowboys to pick up a crucial first down and run out the clock.
"They embarrassed us the first time," Panthers free safety Deon Grant said. "We made too many mistakes and let a tight end catch too many passes. He got open too many times. They came with a great scheme.
"They took advantages of our weaknesses. We have to make some adjustments."
The Panthers did have linebacker Dan Morgan available for that game, but he still may not have been himself after having left the previous game with dizziness. But Morgan said he's feeling much better now and there's a chance he could be a bigger factor in Sunday's game.
Defensively, the Cowboys were the first team to truly shutdown Panthers running back Stephen Davis, holding him to 59 yards on 26 carries, a mere 2.3 yards per carry.
Although Davis had a lower rushing total earlier in the year against Tennessee, that game was a different scenario since the Panthers fell behind by so much early on and were forced to abandon the running game.
"They are very talented defensively and (defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer does an outstanding job," Fox said. "They have exceptional team speed on defense and they've done an outstanding job."
Fox knows it will be important to establish the running game early, but also for Jake Delhomme, who will start his first playoff game, to perform better than he did in the last meeting with Dallas. Delhomme completed just 9 of 24 passes for 175 yards against the league's top-ranked defense with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Carolina's offense, which has averaged 321.3 yards per game this season, had just 244 against Dallas.
"Without a doubt we didn't play well," Delhomme said. "I can say that for myself and a lot of guys. We didn't do enough in the passing game or in the running game. The number one defense can do that to you. We need to go back and really watch that tape and find ways to be productive."
Said Fox: "I think Jake is probably a little more comfortable in what we're doing, taking what the defense is giving you rather than pressing the ball deep all of the time."
The Panthers can't afford to lose the turnover battle either. In the last meeting, Carolina got off on the wrong foot when Rod Smart fumbled the opening kickoff leading to a Billy Cundiff field goal. Also, a breakdown in pass protection led to a Delhomme interception late in the third quarter setting up the go-ahead touchdown for the Cowboys.
While the Panthers look for ways to solve the things that went wrong in the first meeting, Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells will almost certainly spend the early part of this week concocting other schemes to throw off the Panthers.
"I'm sure they learned a lot from that first contest, too," Fox said. Fox believes he has magic number for victory. "We scored 20 points against Dallas," he said. "In my opinion, whoever gets to that first next time will win the game."
SERIES HISTORY: 7th meeting. Cowboys lead series 4-2. The Cowboys have won four straight against the Panthers, including a 24-20 win last month. In that game Quincy Carter completed 29 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns at Texas Stadium. This time around, the Panthers get the Cowboys at home.