When you're playing against Cam Newton, you take a win any way you get it. Blink at the wrong moment, and Newton will be barreling down the field, juking cornerbacks and bull-rushing safeties at full speed. Make him pass, however, and you've taken advantage of the Panthers' weak spot: the other 52 players on the roster.
Jerry Jones says there was nothing ugly about the win, but all of America knows that's not true. Were it not for a bogus horse collar penalty or a dropped Panthers' interception, the Dallas Cowboys would currently be sitting at 2-4 at the bottom of the NFC East.
As it is, however, they are 3-3, a very reasonable record for a very unreasonable team. With the Giants coming to town next week, the Cowboys have a chance to redeem this lackluster season with the first-ever victory against Eli Manning in Cowboys Stadium.
For now, the Cowboys can pat themselves on the back for containing Newton and somehow coming out victorious. These three game changers tipped the scale from embarrassing loss to well-fought win.
How do you make Cam Newton stall? Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush
Just because you know exactly how an opponent is going to attack doesn't mean that you will be able to stop him. Tony Romo has been throwing to Jason Witten on every third-and-8 for the past half decade, but the play keeps working.
Had Ron Rivera called more Newton-friendly running plays in the red zone, this game could have tipped in Carolina's favor.
The Panthers' security blanket is Newton tucking the ball into his massive 245-pound frame and taking off down field.
In the second quarter, Newton turned a third-and-8 into a 24-yard scamper that did more to expose the Cowboys' weak defense than an entire game's worth of Jonathon Stewart and DeAngelo Williams runs. Two plays later and Newton had an additional 20 yards on the ground.
Had Ron Rivera called more Newton-friendly running plays in the red zone, this game could have tipped in Carolina's favor. But with Newton setting up in the pocket to throw on second-and-goal from the 6-yard line, the Cowboys pass rush turned the tide by putting Newton on his back.
Defensive tackle Josh Brent broke through the Panther's O-line like a cannon ball, forcing Newton to heave the ball in distress into the waiting arms of Cowboy Mo Claiborne. Claiborne gets the interception, but the pass rush made the play.
The recently returned Anthony Spencer easily had the best game of the Cowboys' front seven, but Brent, Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware all did their part to contain Newton. The pass rush was considerably more disruptive and forced the one game plan that Rob Ryan must have been itching for all week: Make Newton throw the ball.
Throw the ball he did, and the results were ugly. Aside from a pair of second-quarter runs, the defense kept Newton in the pocket — or on his back — and single-handedly led the Cowboys to victory.
Cowboys play small ball, and T.O. turns in his (metaphorical) grave
Remember when Tony Romo burst on the scene in 2006 and 2007? The most enduring image may be his dropped hold, but the truer picture consists of Terrell Owens streaking down field toward the end zone. The early Romo Cowboys were a big-play team, resting their hopes on the legs of T.O. and a young Felix Jones.
Against the Panthers, the Cowboys struggled. Take away the two (rightfully earned) Miles Austin catches at the beginning of the third quarter, and the Cowboys didn't have a play more than 14 yards.
The very real risk is that if the Cowboys don't score seven when they have the opportunity, they'll never get the the chance again.
When given the time to let a play develop, Romo was choosing the easy six-yard check down to his tailback rather than waiting for the 60-yard play to Austin. It's safe, yes, but it also leads to 10-minute drives with 18 plays for 91 yards and only three points like the Cowboys came up with in the first quarter.
The Cowboys have a top 10 quarterback and a top 10 receiving core yet went into halftime down 7-3. Why? Because they played conservatively and then choked when it mattered most. Sound familiar?
Contrary to what head coach Jason Garrett thinks, running the ball on third-and-9 in the red zone is actually the riskier play. The very real risk is that if the Cowboys don't score seven when they have the opportunity, they'll never get the the chance again.
The Cowboys need to run fewer plays and make each play count more. There's good news ahead for Cowboys fans, however: T.O. is back on the market.
Claiborne has a pick — but little else — to his name
Football players are judged according to expectations. Had Felix Jones been a fourth-round pick, his career up to this point would be considered a success. The reality — that he was a first-rounder —pushes his career right up to the edge of bust category. It's not fair, but Cowboys fans don't consider it fair that Jerry Jones chose Felix Jones over Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice or Jamaal Charles.
Six games in, Mo Claiborne still has ample time to write the story of his rookie season.
Similarly, Mo Claiborne will be judged by how well he lives up to the no. 6 overall pick — and whether he plays as well as the second-round pick the Cowboys gave away to trade up for him. So far, no dice.
Yes, Claiborne got his first NFL pick from Cam Newton, but the ball was gift-wrapped and hand-delivered directly into his waiting arms. For the rest of the game, Claiborne was a step behind.
Claiborne has not looked bad all season long, and he has been thrown into the spotlight against some of the NFL's major talent with little experience to his name. But the holes are starting to show.
Claiborne was a serious couple of steps behind Brandon LaFell to give up a Panthers touchdown in the second quarter, leading Carolina to call the exact same stunt on Claiborne later in the game with the exact same result.
More concerning is Claiborne's obvious disinterest in showing any sort of physicality. When a cornerback is competing for a spot with a former first-round corner in a contract year (Mike Jenkins), it shows an unwillingness to do what it takes to get the win.
Six games in, however, Claiborne still has ample time to write the story of his rookie season. But if the opening act is getting smoked by Brandon LaFell, there's a big question mark hanging over the second act when Hakeem Nicks comes to town next week.