Panthers Get Screw-ged Against Dallas

All the Carolina Panthers wanted under their Christmas tree this year was a win against Dallas and a Tampa Bay loss against the Atlanta Falcons. Instead, they received a lump of coal in their stocking when the Dallas Cowboys made a late game touchdown to defeat the Panthers 24-20 in Bank of America Stadium.

There were two main downfalls to the Panthers on Saturday; One was entirely their responsibility and the other was the responsibility of the officiating crew.

The Panthers held the Cowboys to ten points in the first half and gave Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe a difficult time, sacking him a total of five times throughout the entire game. But the second half saw the Panthers offensive and defensive squads start to unravel. During the third quarter, Steve Smith caught a short pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme and was tackled out of bounds on what appeared in replays as unnecessary roughness by cornerback Terrance Newman. Smith immediately jumped up and started complaining to the game official about the apparent infraction. The official turned away from Smith, and Smith, in an apparent attempt to get the official's attention, grabbed the official by the waist. That move cost Smith not only a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty but also caused Smith to get ejected from the game. As Smith was looking at the replay from a monitor in the tunnel going to the locker room, he agreed with game announcer Troy Aikman that he was just trying to get the official's attention and that he was unfairly ejected from the game. "I got hit out of bounds a little late, and as I was trying to get up, someone pushes me back down," Smith said. "I grabbed the ref and said, 'Hey did you see that?'"

"You are not allowed to touch an official," Coach John Fox said in his Monday press conference. "Steve made a mistake. I don't think it was of malicious intent. But it's like a guy who gets a penalty. You don't necessarily try to get the penalty. He just did. Again, I'm not mad at him. He'll learn from it and we'll move forward."

With Smith out of the game, the Panthers had limited big-play makers. The running game had been stagnant all day and Panthers running back DeShaun Foster only gained 68 yards on 28 attempts. The Panthers did have some bright spots in their wide receiving ranks, however. Veteran wide receiver Ricky Proehl had two receptions for 104 yards and Drew Carter made his presence known in his second straight game, catching three receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown.

The second downfall for the Panthers was the inability of the defense to stop the Dallas running attack. Dallas running back Julius Jones had been without a one hundred yard rushing game all season coming into the Panthers game. Jones took advantage of the Panthers inability to shut him down, rushing 34 times for 192 yards, the longest being a 42 yard scamper.

With a Panthers loss and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers victory, it places the Panthers in a must win situation next week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers beat the Falcons earlier this season, snapping a five game losing streak against the Falcons, but now must travel to Atlanta to wrap up the regular season. The Bucs can clench the NFC South division with a victory over the New Orleans Saints next week and a Panthers loss. The Panthers can clinch the division title with a win and a Bucs loss. There is no guarantee that the Panthers will make the playoffs if they lose against the Falcons next week. In any event, look for next week to be the deciding factor for the Panthers one way or the other as to whether they will end up with a lump of coal for the season or if Coach John Fox still has some tricks he can pull out from his bag of tricks to get the Panthers into the post-season.

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