Every week during the season, we’ll scout out the Cowboys' next opponent. This week, that opponent is the Carolina Panthers.
The Opponent: Every year there are a few trendy picks in the preseason playoff predictions and the Panthers were among the 2012 choices. The big rise in wins during Cam Newton's rookie season mixed with hopefulness about defensive improvements led some to opine that the Panthers were capable of big things. Things haven't worked out that way.
The Line: Cowboys by 1.5
Last Game: The Panthers were on a bye last week, but they lost 16-12 to the Seahawks in Week Five in a game that saw the offense generate just three points.
The Coach: Ron Rivera has become this season's easiest target when looking to tear coaches apart for poor decisions. He makes baffling decisions about when to punt and when to go for it on fourth down, has a defense that doesn't adjust to what other teams are doing successfully and uses replay challenges as if there were no downsides to losing them. We'd say his job is in danger, but the Panthers aren't immune to making strange decisions about their football team.
The Offense: Newton's play has not moved forward since his rookie season and he's coming under heavy fire for his body language and attitude during losses. The Seattle game was a nightmare for him, especially it came after a very strong game against the Falcons that turned into a loss because of Rivera and the defense. It would help Newton if the Panthers' overpriced backfield was running the ball more effectively, but neither DeAngelo Williams nor Jonathan Stewart has been particularly impressive.
The Defense: Any hopes of dramatic improvement have been dashed in the first five games. The defensive backs are soft, the run defense is leaky and the Panthers don't get after the quarterback nearly well enough to make up for those other flaws. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has impressed, which might make him the guy the team tries to build around in coming years.
Key Matchup: Steve Smith vs. Brandon Carr/Morris Claiborne - The Panthers have the aura of a team that is more than willing to quit when things aren't going their way, so the worst thing the Cowboys could do is allow Smith to get loose for a big play or two. There are other players that can make big gains on the ground, but Smith is the passing target that can swing a game.