By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Fourteen months ago, Tony Romo had his coming out party at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium. Now, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback will head to the site of his first taste of success, while hoping to rebound from the worst start of his young career as the NFC East champions visit the Carolina Panthers this Saturday.
Romo's meteoric rise to stardom began when he supplanted Drew Bledsoe as the Cowboys' starter under center in a game against Carolina during Week 8 of last season. The confident signal-caller came through with a strong performance in his first NFL start, completing 24-of-36 throws for 270 yards and a touchdown to lead Dallas to a 35-14 victory over the Panthers.
The 27-year-old has gone on to achieve even greater success since that outing, as he's guided the Cowboys to a 12-2 overall record and the inside track towards earning the top seed for the upcoming NFC playoffs so far this year, as well as ranking among the league leaders in virtually every passing category. However, Romo couldn't live up to his usual high standards when Dallas squared off against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.
Romo hit on just 13-of-36 throws and was intercepted three times during that game, as the Cowboys were dealt a surprising 10-6 defeat at the hands of their division rival. He finished with a 22.2 quarterback rating that was by far the lowest of his 24 lifetime starts.
The undrafted triggerman will not only have to quickly shake off that subpar showing, but also a bruised thumb on his throwing hand that Romo suffered during the second half of last week's loss.
Romo's rough week did get a little brighter on Tuesday, when he was one of a league-high 11 Cowboys named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad.
Sunday's setback snapped a seven-game win streak for Dallas, which can still secure the conference's No. 1 seed with a victory over the Panthers coupled with a loss by Green Bay to Chicago on Sunday.
Carolina is still in the hunt for one of the NFC's two Wild Card berths, albeit barely. In order to make the playoffs, the 6-8 Panthers will need to win their final two regular-season games and have Minnesota lose their last pair, plus Washington has to drop next weekend's matchup with Dallas and New Orleans has to fall in one of its two remaining contests.
The Panthers remained alive in the chase with last Sunday's 13-10 upset of NFC West champ Seattle, fueled by an impressively efficient day from rookie quarterback Matt Moore. The 23-year-old completed 19-of-27 passes for 208 yards and no interceptions in his NFL starting debut.
Moore may be a relative unknown around the league, but the Cowboys are quite familiar with the youngster's talents. He signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent in the spring and spent training camp and preseason with the club before being released during the final roster cuts. Moore was then promptly claimed off waivers by Carolina.
Dallas leads the all-time regular season series with Carolina, 6-1, winning six straight since the Panthers notched their only such win against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium in 1997. Dallas was a 35-14 winner at Bank of America Stadium last season, in a game that, as mentioned, marked the first career start for Romo. Dallas is 3-0 in regular season games played in Charlotte.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met twice in the postseason, with the Panthers winning both. Carolina was a 26-17 home victor in a 1997 NFC Divisional Playoff, and took a 29-10 decision in a 2003 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 1-0 in his career against the Panthers, with that win coming for his Buffalo Bills team in 1998. The Panthers' John Fox is 2-3 in his career against Dallas, and will be meeting Phillips for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas is coming off a rare poor display on offense, as its normally prolific unit was limited to a season-low 240 yards by the Eagles and failed to put up 24 points in a game for the first time this year. The Cowboys still stand second in the NFL in both scoring (32.5 ypg) and total yards (389.2 ypg), and boast a trio of elite skill players in Romo (3838 passing yards, 35 TD, 17 TD), wide receiver Terrell Owens (76 receptions, 1307 yards, 14 TD) and tight end Jason Witten (88 receptions, 1068 yards, 7 TD). Owens has been held in check as of late, having recorded just 58 yards on five catches without a score over the last two weeks, but Witten has delivered back-to-back outstanding efforts to offset his teammate's recent dip in production. He had a team-best eight grabs for 113 yards in last Sunday's defeat. Dallas' third- ranked passing offense (270.4 ypg) should get a further boost this week from the hopeful addition of veteran wideout Terry Glenn, who's finally ready to return from knee surgery that forced him to sit out the team's first 14 games.
The Cowboys can run the ball as well, as the potent duo of Marion Barber (871 rushing yards, 40 receptions, 11 total TD) and Julius Jones (556 rushing yards, 2 TD, 20 receptions) averages over 100 yards per game behind a top- notch line that had three members -- center Andre Gurode, guard Leonard Davis and tackle Flozell Adams -- receive Pro Bowl nods this week. Gurode will likely sit out Saturday's tilt, however, after spraining his right knee in the Philadelphia game. Barber will also be headed to Honolulu as one of seven Dallas offensive players to represent the NFC.
Carolina will attempt to rattle Romo in much the same way the Eagles did last week, when Philly sacked the all-star quarterback four times and hurried him into a number of off-target throws. Pressuring the passer has been a year-long problem area for the Panthers, though. The club is last in the league with 19 sacks, although the defense got to Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck three times on Sunday. Compounding the issue is the potential loss of standout end Julius Peppers (39 tackles, 3 sacks), who suffered a knee sprain against the Seahawks and is highly questionable to play. Carolina, which comes in 13th overall in pass defense (212.4 ypg), does have the talent in the secondary to stay with Dallas' strong receiving corps, as Chris Gamble (46 tackles, 1 INT), Ken Lucas (56 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) and Richard Marshall (69 tackles, 2 INT) are all capable corners.
After yielding an unwanted 178 rushing yards in a loss to Jacksonville two weeks ago, Carolina's defense toughened up against Seattle and held the Seahawks to a mere 44 yards on the ground. For the year the Panthers are allowing a stout 3.7 yards per rush attempt, with massive tackles Maake Kemoeatu (39 tackles) and Kris Jenkins (34 tackles, 2.5 sacks) plugging the gaps for rookie middle linebacker Jon Beason (118 tackles, 1 INT) and athletic strong safety Chris Harris (90 tackles, 1 INT, 8 forced fumbles) to make plays.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
The insertion of Moore (374 passing yards, 0 TD, 3 INT) provided some much- needed stability to a Carolina offense that has struggled mightily since regular quarterback Jake Delhomme went down with a season-ending elbow injury in Week 3. The little-known rookie hit on 70 percent of his air attempts versus Seattle and enabled the Panthers to convert 9-of-18 third-down attempts for the game, while also engineering a pair of long scoring drives during the fourth quarter. Moore will be looking often in the direction of dangerous wideout Steve Smith (73 receptions, 6 TD), who hauled in eight passes last week. Second-year tight end Jeff King (45 receptions, 2 TD) serves as the main safety valve for a Carolina squad which averages just 172.8 passing yards per game (28th overall).
The Panthers also use a two-pronged ground attack, with DeShaun Foster (821 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 4 total TD) and DeAngelo Williams (536 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 3 total TD) splitting ball-carrying duties for the team's 15th-ranked rushing offense (112.5 ypg). Williams has been the more effective part of the tandem, as the 2006 first-round pick is averaging 4.7 yards per attempt and sealed last Sunday's victory with a late 35-yard touchdown run. Foster totaled only 47 yards on 18 rushes in the game.
Those two backs will be plugging away at a Dallas defense that has become quite submissive against the run in recent weeks. The Cowboys surrendered 134 rushing yards in the Philadelphia loss, one week after a Detroit's normally- useless ground game piled up a whopping 152 yards on them. Dallas will also be without one of best defensive stoppers for this test, as strong safety Roy Williams (83 tackles, 2 INT) will serve a one-game suspension for an illegal "horse-collar" tackle on the Eagles' Donovan McNabb last Sunday. He will be replaced in the lineup by special-teams stalwart Keith Davis (16 tackles). Despite their recent troubles, the Cowboys still rank fourth in the NFL in rushing defense (90.7 ypg).
Expect the Cowboys to try to apply the heat to Moore with its outstanding pass-rush combo of linebackers DeMarcus Ware (75 tackles, 11 sacks) and Greg Ellis (27 tackles, 11.5 sacks). The pair has accounted for over half of the club's healthy season total of 38 sacks. Ware is one of three Dallas defensive players chosen to this year's Pro Bowl, along with cornerback Terence Newman (46 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) and free safety Ken Hamlin (54 tackles, 5 INT, 13 PD). Those latter two have been the top performers on a secondary which has given up 217.1 passing yards per game (15th overall) but has snared 18 interceptions.
Those who have rode Romo to get this far in the fantasy playoffs shouldn't jump ship on their top quarterback because of one lousy day, and the odds are he'll reward his owners with a nice rebound effort on Saturday. Owens and Witten are must-plays for Dallas as well. The Panthers won't be able to stop both of them, so whoever Carolina decides to focus its attention on in this game, the other should have a big night. Barber's been a very good fantasy back as well, and makes for a good start, while the Dallas defense has plenty of point-producing potential against a Panthers team that struggles to score and will be fielding an inexperienced quarterback. Smith has had a disappointing year from a fantasy perspective, but Carolina's best offensive weapon still remains start-worthy. He's probably the only one on the home side with that status, however.
The Cowboys' impressive body of work over the course of this season still tabs them as the team to beat in the NFC, but their back-to-back mediocre showings following their big win over Green Bay in Week 13 is a cause for concern with the postseason just around the corner. Now Dallas is in a situation where there's precious little margin for error, as there's a very good chance that the NFC East champions will have to win out in order to capture home-field advantage for the conference playoffs. That should be more than enough motivation for the Cowboys to come out firing on all cylinders. The Panthers will surely try to control the clock on offense, and if Moore can effectively move the chains like he did last week, Dallas could have a battle on its hands. Carolina's defense is capable of neutralizing the Cowboys' run game but needs to get consistent pressure on Romo to keep the score close, as there's no way the Panthers will be able to win in a shootout. The thought here is that Romo gets plenty of protection and will have a strong return to form after his one-week hiccup.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 24, Panthers 10