Six Points: Panthers vs. Cowboys

The matchup between Josh Norman and Dez Bryant (right) will be on the marquee.

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It’s not common for a matchup between two teams separated by seven games in the standings to come in as the most anticipated game of Thanksgiving, and maybe the week, but the Dallas Cowboys (3-7) have Tony Romo back now and everything has changed. They host the undefeated Carolina Panthers (10-0) on Thanksgiving, and they even opened up as 1-point favorites at home.

The Cowboys hope that their defensive resurgence in Week 11 was no fluke. With linebacker Sean Lee back in the lineup and Byron Jones starting at cornerback for the injured Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys held the Miami Dolphins to just 14 points and 210 total yards on offense. Things will be more difficult in Week 12 against a red-hot Cam Newton who just threw for five touchdown passes in Week 11.

The Panthers have been one of the NFL’s best offenses on the ground all season, but they are finally opening things up in the passing game. Keep an eye on rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess in this one. The talented second-round pick has earned more playing time in recent weeks, and he has responded with two touchdowns and 176 yards receiving over his last three games.

Here are three keys to the game for both the Panthers and Cowboys:

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1. Test Tony Romo

While Romo showed moments of being back to his old form in Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins, he also threw two interceptions and showed a bit of rust. The Panthers defense is more than capable of getting pressure on Romo, so giving him any as little time in the pocket is going to be key right out of the gate. Expect Romo to look to attack Carolina, even the incredible Josh Norman, early on Thanksgiving.

2. A heavy dose of Jonathan Stewart

The Panthers can take full advantage of a Dallas defense who has struggled against opposing run games in 2015. To this point in the year, the Cowboys have allowed 958 rushing yards, 594 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns to opposing running backs. If Stewart can keep rolling, there’s no reason to believe that he can’t spark Carolina’s offense and quiet down what should be a pretty rowdy home crowd for the Cowboys.

3. Keep Josh Norman on Dez Bryant

It almost goes without saying, but if the Cowboys are going to attack the Panthers through the air, they need to force someone other than Bryant to beat them. While he’s still dealing with a few minor injuries, Bryant is one of the elite playmakers in the NFL. Expect him to look to have a huge game on Thanksgiving in front of a national audience, but it’ll be Norman’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. Is Norman up to the task? It’s a safe bet to assume that he will be.

1. Use 11 personnel and target Cole Beasley

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With talented all-pro caliber players at all three levels of the defense (Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman), the Panthers are not an easy defense to target. However, they’re not invincible, and slot cornerback Bene’ Benwikere has really struggled in 2015. He has allowed a 68.6 completion percentage against, 418 yards against and three touchdowns. Only seven cornerbacks have been targeted more times. A good way for the Cowboys to keep him on the field is by going to 11 personnel featuring three wide receivers, a running back and a tight end. Beasley is the Cowboys’ slot man, and he will draw Benwikere in primary coverage. The Cowboys should

2. Let Sean Lee go one-on-one with Greg Olsen

In his first game back from a concussion, Lee led the Cowboys in tackles in Week 11. His impact, as usual, also came in the passing game. As usual, the opposing quarterback was afraid to look Lee’s way — he was only targeted once. Lee has earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s best linebackers in pass coverage, and Olsen is Carolina’s best weapon overall on offense after Newton. If the Cowboys use Lee one-on-one, it will allow the other defenders to shift coverage and focus on Carolina’s potent rushing attack.

3. Don’t force targets to Dez Bryant

The Panthers have already confirmed that Bryant will be matched up with cornerback Josh Norman in shadow coverage. Norman has emerged as arguably the NFL’s most elite cornerback during a down season for Darrelle Revis and Vontae Davis. Norman has allowed just 50 percent of his targets to be completed for one touchdown against — he also has four interceptions. Turnovers will be costly in this game against a team as good as the Panthers are, so the Cowboys need to do everything they can to avoid them. They can win by taking advantage of other matchups in the passing game.