Previewing Carolina

Previewing Carolina

The Cowboys hope to keep their playoff hopes alive Saturday against the Carolina Panthers.

KICKOFF: Saturday, 1:00 ET

GAMEDATE: 12/24/05

SURFACE: Grass

TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver.

SERIES: 8th meeting. Dallas leads the series 4-3 and the Cowboys have won four of the last five. Dallas and Carolina met in a 1996 divisional playoff Game and a 2003 wild-card game, with the Panthers claiming victories in both.

2005 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 15th (14th rush, 14th pass); defense 10th (15th rush, 10th pass). Panthers: offense 22nd (22nd rush, 18th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 11th pass).

KEYS TO THE GAME: Cowboys coach Bill Parcells tried leaving inexperienced OTs Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti on their own, and the result was QB Drew Bledsoe taking a beating last Sunday. He's going to have to be more conservative against the Panthers' strong pass rush, max protecting Bledsoe on long passing downs. But the best solution would be a strong game from RBs Julius Jones and Marion Barber to avoid those long passing downs all together. The Cowboys' once-stout run defense has been torched for a combined 603 yards over the past four games, and the Panthers will test the ground early on with RBs DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings with the hope of opening things up downfield for WR Steve Smith. With WR Drew Carter's speed adding an extra element last Sunday, don't be surprised to see more four receiver sets from Carolina.

FAST FACTS: Cowboys: Are the only team with three players with at least 650 receiving yards. ... Have outscored opponents 93-47 in the fourth quarter. ... Bledsoe needs 45 passing yards to pass Dan Fouts (43,041) for seventh-most all-time. Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme needs two passing yards to a franchise-record third consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons. ... Smith needs 10 receptions to break WR Muhsin Muhammad's single-season record of 102 set in 2000.

PERSONNEL NEWS: Cowboys: --LB Kevin Burnett finally earned his first career sack, albeit two weeks late. Kenyon Coleman originally was given credit for the third-quarter sack against Kansas City, but the NFL officially changed it to Burnett's.

--DE Greg Ellis will not be having a happy return to North Carolina this weekend. The former Tar Heel has warned his friends and family that he might not play much against the Panthers. Ellis is still the team leader in sacks, but his playing time has severely diminished. With a roster bonus of $500,000 due in March. Ellis knows he will not be back with Dallas next season.

--G Marco Rivera (strained neck) has yet to practice this week but the Cowboys are not ruling him out of Saturday's game against the Panthers. If Rivera is not ready, Parcells said Andre Gurode would start at right guard. Gurode started at right guard the past two seasons to less than stellar reviews from coach Bill Parcells. He was moved to backup center when the Cowboys signed Rivera in the off-season. Parcells said he is comfortable with Gurode at guard against the Panthers because he has been a much improved player this year.

--QB Drew Bledsoe has struggled away from Texas Stadium this year, throwing 10 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. He has 11 touchdowns and three interceptions at home. He has also been sacked 27 times on the road compared to 12 times at home.

Panthers: --LB Dan Morgan will play Saturday, but is still experiencing soreness in both his ankle and shoulder. At this point, Morgan is just fighting to get through the season and remain on the field.

--RB DeShaun Foster is hoping to pick up where Washington's Clinton Portis left off last week against Dallas. It won't be easy, as the Cowboys should be plenty fired up after last week's loss. Foster is probable for Saturday's game with a shoulder injury.

--WR Steve Smith will command plenty of attention from Bill Parcells and the Cowboys on Saturday. "I think they have an outstanding player in Steve Smith," Parcells said. "I think he's one of the top ten players in the NFL. If I was starting a team and I could pick ten guys, he'd certainly be on it. I have a lot of respect for him. He's an outstanding player."

--DE Mike Rucker should be plenty fired up for Saturday after getting snubbed by the Pro Bowl voters. Rucker has better numbers than teammate Julius Peppers, who did make the Pro Bowl, but was not even voted as an alternate.

--QB Jake Delhomme has thrown 20 touchdown passes but has turned the ball over 20 times this year. Yet that was good enough to get Delhomme to the Pro Bowl in the quarterback-depleted NFC.

INSIDE THE CAMPS: Cowboys: No Cowboys team has ever started 7-3 and not made the playoffs. Only two teams in franchise history have finished with a winning record and failed to make the playoffs: The 1974 Cowboys were 8-6; the 1984 Cowboys were 9-7.

Yet the possibility is very real that the Cowboys (8-6) could win their final two games, against the Panthers on Saturday and the Rams Jan. 1, and finish out of the running.

The NFC race is that tight.

But, of course, the Cowboys have no one to blame but themselves.

In losing three of their past four games, the Cowboys look almost nothing like the team that won seven of its first 10 games.

The defense has allowed an average of 26 points in their past four games. They have allowed three straight 100-yard rushers.

Offensively, they can't run, block or throw with any consistency.

Yet, to have a chance at the postseason, they must pull it all back together immediately.

Any chance for the playoffs likely rests on a victory at Carolina on Saturday.

Coach Bill Parcells and his legendary pedigree can't do it for the Cowboys. They must do it themselves.

"For a team to take that next step and be as successful as we want to be, it has to come from the players," quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "It can't be someone from the outside kicking our butt to get us going. It has to come internally from each guy and player to player to make that happen."

Panthers: With Stephen Davis sidelined for the remainder of the season, you can expect running back Nick Goings to play a prominent role down the stretch and into the postseason for the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers believe they can count on Goings, who posted five 100-yard rushing games in his second half of last season after they were decimated by injuries at the running back position.

DeShaun Foster will remain the starter, but Goings will spell him and see plenty of action on third downs.

"He'll be a guy that I'm sure we'll lean heavily on again this week," said quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Goings is a popular figure at Bank of America Stadium, largely because of the way he goes about his job.

"He doesn't talk or say much," Delhomme said. "He just does everything the right way. The coaches love him. The players love him. And you saw (at New Orleans) the different things we can do with him. He can play fullback for us, or we can have him lined up outside wide.

"He had the big play for us in the two-minute drive before halftime. He's just a solid player who proved last year how good he can be."

Despite his big finish last season, Goings didn't make a big fuss in the media and said he never thought about holding out for more money or demanding a trade like Reuben Droughns.

Why?

"Because I love playing for this team," Goings said matter-of-factly. "Back when I was coming out of college, I was an undrafted free agent and the Panthers gave me an opportunity that other teams didn't. This is where my heart is. I didn't think twice about all that other stuff."

So Goings accepted a reduced role to return to Carolina. He entered the season as the team's third running back and second fullback.

This year he's played mostly on special teams, but with Davis now out for the season Goings will again be a big part of Carolina's offense.

Last week he had 88 total yards from scrimmage against New Orleans, which was slightly more than Foster's total.

Leading 10-7 just before halftime, the Panthers drove 64 yards on six plays in just one minute and 11 seconds to score a crucial touchdown on a 2-yard run by Delhomme. Goings accounted for 42 of the yards on the drive.

"We needed to get some momentum at that point and put some more points on the board. That was a big drive," Goings said.

Goings said losing Davis to a season-ending knee injury was hard because he "was such a big part of the team."

But he vows to make the most of his latest opportunity.

And while he's not likely to get quite as many carries as he did in the second half of the 2004 season, he said he'll be happy with whatever the team gives him.

"But I just want to be ready for whatever role they give me and play my heart out for the team," he said.

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