GAMEDAY: Panthers vs. Cowboys

The Panthers have had some big games with the Cowboys over the years, including two playoff meetings, both of which Carolina won. However, the Cowboys won the last meeting on Christmas Eve of last year 24-20 to destroy Carolina's chances at winning the NFC South division title. Julius Jones ran for 194 yards and two touchdowns as the Cowboys blew open huge holes in the Carolina defensive line.

Talk about the game HERE.

GAME SNAPSHOT

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 10/29/06
SURFACE: Grass
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)

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.

Pre-Game Notes

The Carolina Panthers defense is hoping Tony Romo is just what they need.

The Panthers, who haven't really dominated anyone for a full 60 minutes all season on defense, have traditionally done extremely well against quarterbacks making their first career NFL start or who have very little experience as a starter.

Last year, Brooks Bollinger made his second NFL start against Carolina on Nov. 13, and was intercepted four times and sacked three times as the Panthers annihilated the New York Jets 30-3.

Then, in December of 2005, the Panthers faced Todd Bouman, making only his fourth NFL start overall and his first since 2001, and the results were similar. Again, the Panthers came up with four interceptions and sacked him once in a 27-10 win over the New Orleans Saints.

In 2003, the Panthers sacked Josh McCown five times in his starting debut and beat the Arizona Cardinals 20-17 to secure the NFC South division title.

In 2002, the Panthers defeated Chris Redman in his first career start for the Baltimore Ravens, 10-7. Redman was held to 218 yards passing, sacked twice and intercepted once.

Nonetheless, Dallas coach Bill Parcells feels like this is a move he has to make to jumpstart the Cowboys, who have lost two of their last three to fall to 3-3 on the season.

"I don't feel like I'm putting a rookie in there because this is his fourth year in the league," Parcells said. "Even though he doesn't have a lot of game experience, he's been around awhile and he's started a couple of preseason games and played a whole lot in the preseason.

"I'm hopeful this gives us something a little extra. I don't know whether it will or not, but I'm hopeful."

Romo will be facing a Carolina defense hungry for its first breakout game.

They've twice forced three turnovers in a game, but they have only one defensive touchdown and haven't exactly dominated an opponent they way they'd like. Injuries throughout the defense have prevented the Panthers from living up to expectations.

The Panthers say it doesn't matter who starts for the Cowboys at quarterback, but you get a sneaky suspicion from talking to the players that they're anxious to face Romo, who struggled Monday night in relief of Drew Bledsoe.

"I think it's a catch-22, you can say (Bledsoe) is standing back there and you can sack him, but then you've got the experience he brings to the table," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "Where you bring the young guy in like Romo, he doesn't have the experience but he has the legs to make some things happen."

The Panthers are well aware the Cowboys have other weapons, including running back Julius Jones, who ran for 194 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-20 win over the Panthers last Christmas eve at Bank of America Stadium -- one that killed the team's chances of winning the NFC South.

In the secondary, Panthers veteran cornerback Ken Lucas said the change to Romo won't change the way he plays against receivers Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn.

"They are going to do what they do regardless of who the quarterback is," Lucas said. "You don't want to get caught up in all of the turmoil they are having down in Dallas because it will throw you off a little bit. We have to focus on the things we're not doing well right now. Because we haven't been living up to things we're capable of doing, in my opinion.

"We can't be worrying about what they're doing or who is quarterback them this week. We have a lot on the table that we have to fix ourselves."

The general theory is Romo's feet will give him the ability to make more plays, but the Panthers say they're used to that.

"They say he will run around, but we've seen that before," Rucker said. "We see at least twice a year with the guy (Michael Vick) down the road. I'm not saying that it isn't effective, but it isn't we need to get bent out of shape about."

--When asked about Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith during a conference call on Wednesday, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells joked, "He's a pain in the ass. That's what he is. I say that complimentarily. He'll know that. I've already told him that once."

Parcells was referring to how difficult it is to game plan for Smith.

However, Smith wasn't much of a pain in the you-know-what last year for the Cowboys.

That's because he was ejected in the first half of Carolina's 24-20 loss to the Cowboys for grabbing an official around the waist to argue a call. He caught just one pass before his exodus.

--Cornerback Ken Lucas said he has more on his mind this week than just stopping Terrell Owens.

"I think you don't want to just focus on Terrell Owens because they have another receiver in Terry Glenn who I think is just as good as T.O.," Lucas said. "Terry Glenn has the capability of beating you too. Whoever we line up on, we have two tough matchups. The secondary better come ready to play because they're going to take their chances throwing the ball downfield."

--Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme weighed in on the Dallas defense on Wednesday.

"They're very big," Delhomme said. "That's the one thing about them. I think (Dallas head coach Bill) Parcells has molded them the way he wants them. He likes that big 3-4 look. They have the two-gappers and certainly they have some good corners.

"(Anthony) Henry is a very solid corner. (Terence) Newman is very good. Roy Williams lays some people out. If you watch him, the 'oomph' he brings for a safety is something. (Defensive end) DeMarcus Ware is special. He's a young guy. He can run. He's only going to get better, but the sad thing is he's already good."

--When asked what his team needs to work on this week after watching tape of last week's game, coach John Fox replied, "We've got to continue to work on third down (on offense). I think we've got to tackle better this week (on defense) than we did a week ago."

--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.

--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 DeShaun Foster seems to be struggling hitting the holes when they're there.

--QB Jake Delhomme has two touchdown passes in each of his last two games for Carolina.

--WR Steve Smith is averaging 113.2 receiving yards per game since his return from a hamstring injury. Smith missed the first two games of the season.

--TE Kris Mangum could see a little more action this week in the passing game as the Panthers look to exploit some matchups with the Dallas linebackers.

--DT Kris Jenkins and the rest of the line will have their hands full with Julius Jones, who ran for 194 yards and two scores against the Panthers last season. Of course, the Panthers didn't have Jenkins and Ma'ake Kemoeatu in the middle last year either.

--CB Chris Gamble could have a tough time Sunday night covering Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn.

--No word yet on if C Justin Hartwig will be back in the lineup.

GAME PLAN

It's pretty clear cut what Carolina's strategy will be Sunday night on defense -- pressure Tony Romo. Dallas' offensive line has struggled anyway, and with Romo making his first NFL start, the Panthers want to make sure he doesn't get comfortable. Just as important, the Panthers can't allow Julius Jones to get into a rhythm and run wild like he did against them last year.

Offensively, look for the Panthers to throw a bunch to Steve Smith and test Dallas' cornerbacks. The Panthers may feel like they can't move the ball on the ground against a very stingy Dallas run defense. Keyshawn Johnson should be motivated playing against his former team.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Panthers DE Julius Peppers vs. Cowboys RT Marc Colombo -- Nothing against Colombo, but it would be shocking if he can keep Peppers out of the backfield without a lot of help from his running backs as well as a tight end. Earlier this week, Bill Parcells called Peppers the premier pass rusher in the NFL. Dallas has allowed 18 sacks this season, so look for the Panthers to apply pressure.

--Cowboys WR Terrell Owens vs. Panthers CBs Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble -- Lucas and Gamble haven't really lived up to expectations this season, as Lucas is quick to admit. Last year they looked like one of the better tandems in the league, but Lucas has struggled with injuries and Gamble with inconsistency. Owens will be their biggest test by this season, but the Panthers can't forget about Terry Glenn either. This game has the potential to be a shootout.

INJURY IMPACT

Everyone participated in at least a portion of Wednesday's practice, including running back DeAngelo Williams.

However, even though Williams is listed as questionable on the injury report, definitely consider him a long shot to actually play Sunday. In all likelihood the Panthers will hold him out this week and give him an additional week of rest during the bye before bringing him back for a Monday night game Nov. 13 against Tampa Bay.

The good news for the Panthers is linebacker Thomas Davis (ribs) and cornerback Ken Lucas (hip) were back at practice and both appear ready to go Sunday night. There had been some concern of Lucas' injury after he left last week's game.

Officially, Davis is listed as questionable.

Lucas is probable, along with safety Mike Minter (knee) and linebacker Adam Seward (thigh).

BY THE NUMBERS

23.5 -- Panthers third-down conversion rate on offense, the worst mark in the NFL.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"You accept it like a man, watch the film and learn from it, but then you have to let it go. Don't get me wrong. There are still scars that you'll have for life. That's part of it. But you learn and you grow from it. We have another challenge, and it's a big one." -- Panthers QB Jake Delhomme on dealing with last week's costly interception late in the game in the end zone against the Bengals. The Panthers trailed 17-14 at the time and Delhomme had led the Panthers to the Bengals 10 before throwing a pick on third down when he should have thrown the ball away.


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