National Football League
Cowboys wake up just in time to beat Panthers: 'We'll take the win any way we can get it'
National Football League

Cowboys wake up just in time to beat Panthers: 'We'll take the win any way we can get it'

Published Nov. 19, 2023 7:39 p.m. ET

There was a moment — a very long moment — in the third quarter Sunday when it looked like the Dallas Cowboys had fallen asleep. They had been dominating the Carolina Panthers up until that point, and there was no reason to think that was about to change.

Until the Panthers went on a monster, 17-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that lasted nearly nine minutes. And when it was over, it was suddenly just a one-score game.

What the Cowboys did next, though, was something they probably should have done much earlier, but it still might be as important as anything else they've done during this season: They woke up. And just in time for a convincing win over the kind of team the real contenders absolutely have to beat.

"Every week is about handling business," quarterback Dak Prescott said after the Cowboys did just that, beating the Panthers 33-10. "Obviously, we understood the challenge this week: Keep our focus on where we were. If you look on paper, we knew we had a lesser opponent coming in. We got the job done. To say it was clean and exactly what we wanted, I can't say that.


"But we'll take the win any way we can get it."

This game might have been a yawner overall and won't end up on anybody's list of the Cowboys greatest games, but that's exactly what it was supposed to be. The Cowboys (7-3) are supposed to be an NFL power, trying not only to keep pace with the Philadelphia Eagles, but also trying to build up momentum for a Super Bowl run. The Panthers (1-8) are awful, with a struggling rookie quarterback in Bryce Young, and a coach in Frank Reich who is in danger of being one-and-done.

A loss to a team like the Panthers wouldn't have been just humiliating for the Cowboys. It would have been damaging — to their image, their psyche, their confidence and everything else. This is a team that is starting to roll. They are clicking on offense and defense.

The last thing they needed was to stumble into a deep hole.

'I just go get it' — Cowboys' DaRon Bland on getting NFL record-tying fourth Pick-6 of the season

But they didn't. They woke up. And when they did, they woke up quick. Right after that long Panthers drive cut the score to 17-10, the Cowboys answered with a powerful, 21-yard touchdown run by Tony Pollard — the running back that has been mostly missing in action the last two months. He ran through eight Panthers defenders, including three at the line of scrimmage and three more inside the last six yards — a run that made McCarthy's jaw drop almost to the floor.

On the Panthers' next play, Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland made a diving interception, then got up and returned it 30 yards for his NFL record-tying fourth Pick-6 of the season to put the Cowboys up 30-10. And just like that, in a span of 10 seconds, a tight game had turned back into a rout.

"That, in my view, was the biggest play that was made today," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "Those plays change the course of games. That definitely clearly put us in the driver's seat."

They weren't done yet. Six Panthers plays after that, Carolina's struggling young quarterback Young dropped the football and the Cowboys recovered, setting up a field goal that made the score 33-10. And by then, Young — who was sacked six times by the Cowboys and threw for just 123 yards — had no chance for any miracle comeback. The Cowboys had the kind of breathing room they expected to have in a game against a team competing for the top pick in the next draft. 

So they were able to pull their starters, including Prescott, who threw for just 189 yards and two touchdowns. None of the final offensive numbers were gaudy. Receiver CeeDee Lamb was held to just 38 yards and a touchdown on his six catches and the offense had just 311 yards. 

But those two fourth-quarter turnovers made everything feel right. All that mattered to the Cowboys was the end result.

"I feel like we came here and did what we needed to do," McCarthy said.

And that's big. It's not as big as, say, beating the Eagles would have been. It certainly doesn't make up for their horrible, 42-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in early October. But championship seasons aren't just built on beating other championship contenders. Teams that are serious about competing have to take care of business against lesser teams, too.

For the most part, the Cowboys have done that. They opened the season with two wins over the New York teams by a combined score of 70-10. They pounded the New England Patriots 38-3 and even crushed the Los Angeles Rams 43-20. The one that hurt, though, was their terrible, Week 3 loss in Arizona when they fell 28-16 to a team that has won only one other game this year.

That can't be erased, but it's on the verge of being forgotten after they destroyed the New York Giants at home a week ago 49-17 and followed that up with their win in Carolina. Both of those could easily have been considered "trap games." The same can be said of their game against the struggling Washington Commanders (4-7) scheduled for Thanksgiving night.

So far, the Cowboys have shown they're pretty good about not falling in those traps. And that must continue. Because between their game on Thursday against the Commanders and their season-finale in Washington, they have to face the Seahawks, Eagles, Bills, Dolphins and Lions — all of whom might still end up in the playoffs.

Those are all big games, and the Cowboys need to win them. But if they want this season to be all that they hope it will be, they need to do what they did on Sunday in Carolina — they need to win the little games, too.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.


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