The second leg of the NFL's Thanksgiving Day tripleheader features what appears to be a total mismatch on paper -- the NFC's No. 1 team against the NFC's No. 16 team. But in this case, win-loss records can be very deceiving and few expect this holiday matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys to be a blowout.
The Panthers are 10-0, have won their last 14 regular season games and look primed to make a ton of noise in the playoffs. But they aren't the only unbeaten team on an extended win streak that will be at AT&T Stadium on Thursday. The Cowboys are 3-0 with Tony Romo in the lineup this year and have won the last seven regular season games he's started. Now, they are oozing confidence as they try to make an improbable push for the postseason.
The Panthers' incredible run since the beginning of last December -- a near-perfect stretch during which they've won 15 of 16 games, including the playoffs -- has put them on a clear path toward playing on the league's grandest stage in February.
Their 14-game regular-season win streak is the third-longest by an NFC team since the 1970 merger, bested only by the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers and the 2010-11 Green Bay Packers. Both of those teams won Super Bowls during their streaks. The Panthers and Patriots are the 16th and 17th teams in the Super Bowl era to start a season 10-0 or better. Of the previous 15, nine have made it to the Super Bowl and six have won it all.
The Cowboys might sit in the conference's basement with a 3-7 record, but they hardly look like the team that put those seven losses on the ledger now that Romo is on the field. They've got their swagger back and a renewed sense of optimism that this team can rewrite the record books with an unprecedented run to the playoffs. No team in NFL history has started 2-7 and made the postseason.
The prospect of this miraculous turnaround wouldn't be possible if the Cowboys didn't reside in the woeful NFC East, a division where mediocrity reigns supreme and every team has significant flaws. Despite losing every single game without Romo, the Cowboys are just two games behind the first-place New York Giants. Granted, they might have to close the season with a 6-0 or 5-1 run, but that task doesn't seem so daunting with Romo under center.
Long known as one of the better defensive teams in football, the Panthers have suddenly transformed into an offensive juggernaut this season. Carolina ranks third in points per game (29.9), and are one of two teams -- along with the Patriots -- that have scored at least 20 points in every contest. Last year, the Panthers reached the 20-point mark in less than half of their games.
Powered by the league's fourth-ranked rushing offense, the Panthers are third in average time of possession and are simply suffocating their opponents with their clock-churning, ground-and-pound game plan. They feature arguably the most diverse and complex running game in the NFL, with quarterback Cam Newton (382 rushing yards), tailback Jonathan Stewart (764) and fullback Matt Tolbert (109) forming a nearly unstoppable three-headed monster in the backfield.
Romo and the Cowboys were far from dominant in his return to action last Sunday, but a rusty Romo was way more effective than Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden were in his absence. Although his numbers weren't eye-popping (227 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), Romo's presence sparked a previously dormant offense. The Cowboys put up 24 points and 386 yards against the Miami Dolphins; during their seven-game slide, Dallas averaged just 17 points and 322 yards per game.
Perhaps the most significant impact that Romo had on the game was as the "closer," a role that Romo has embraced throughout his career and that the team clearly missed when he was sidelined. In six of their seven losses without Romo, the Cowboys were either tied or had a lead in the fourth quarter. On Sunday, the Cowboys entered the final period tied 14-14; Romo then went 4 of 5 for 45 yards and led two scoring drives to seal the win. It was his 30th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, tied for the most among quarterbacks since his debut as a starter in 2006.
Another thing that favors Romo and the Cowboys in this game is that they've been in this situation before -- facing a formidable unbeaten opponent -- and have had success. In 2006, they knocked off a 9-0 Colts team; in 2009, they shocked a 13-0 Saints team. Their next challenge? A 10-0 Panthers team on Thanksgiving.
Who to Watch
The battle between Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant should be required viewing for any football fan. Norman, who burst onto the scene with four interceptions in the first four games, has emerged as one of the league's elite corners. He grades out as the NFL's top-rated cornerback per Pro Football Focus. Oh, and he's had this game "circled" for a while now, clearly amped up to shut down the Cowboys' stud wideout.
Bryant fractured his foot in Week 1 and still isn't 100 percent, but he was happy to have his guy Romo back in action on Sunday. He caught four passes for 45 yards and, most importantly, found the end zone in the fourth quarter. It was the 50th touchdown pass he's caught from Romo, making them the most prolific quarterback-receiver duo in franchise history. Bryant is no stranger to the spotlight, and you can bet that he will relish the opportunity to face off against Norman in front of a national television audience.
How to Watch
When: 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
Online: NFL Game Pass
The game is a pick 'em and the over/under is set at 46, according to OddsShark.com.
The experts are split on the winner of this game. Over at CBS Sports, Dallas is a very slight favorite among the eight guys. However, ESPN's panel is nearly unanimous in taking the Panthers. Here at SB Nation, we've got four taking Carolina (including the OddsShark computer) and four picking Dallas.
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