Usually you don't start talking about must win games until at least half way through the season. Unfortunately when you get off to a 2-3 start and you are facing a very difficult stretch of games you can get yourself backed into a corner very early on. With games coming up against the Giants, Falcons and Eagles this game is without a doubt a season defining game.
Win this game and you can still cling to some hope that the playoffs are a real possibility. Lose and you are staring at a very real possibility of an implosion. Obviously I am hoping and slowly convincing myself that the Cowboys will win this game.
Carolina may be a 1-4 team, but they have several very close losses. Included in that list of 4 losses is a game against the Falcons that they only lost thanks to a miracle finish. So we are really looking at a team that is essentially in the same place as the Cowboys in terms of record and desperation.
Cam Newton could easily take the game over if the Cowboys don't have a good plan to contain him. I hope we don't see a lot of the typical 3 man rush from Rob Ryan this week. The Cowboys need to contain Newton and keep him in the pocket. Steve Smith is the biggest concern in the passing game but he can be taken out of the game with physical play at the line of scrimmage. Terence Newman always had Smith's number but now that he is gone the Cowboys need the other cornerbacks to step up.
The offense has a good chance to repeat their rushing performance from last week. Carolina has a terrible rush defense. But the Cowboys will have to do it without DeMarco Murray this week. He is likely out with a sprained foot so Felix Jones will get a lot of action. Felix was pretty good last week but ran out of gas a little in the second half. Hopefully he'll be able to stay strong for four quarters this week. I'm sure Phillip Tanner and even Lance Dunbar will get a lot of action as well as long as the running game is working.
The biggest thing this week is just playing a clean game. By that I mean no turnovers and no big special teams plays by the Panthers. On paper the Cowboys appear to be the better team. They have a better defense and a better offense than the Panthers. But if the Cowboys play a sloppy game like they have often done this season they could easily lose. The Cowboys don't have to play great or even good. They just need to play decent football and they will win the game.
I don't think the Cowboys will win as easily as they should this week, but I do think they will find a way to get it done. I'm predicting a 23-10 win for the Cowboys in what will be a hard fought game with a lot of rushing yards by the offense. I don't even want to think about what could happen to the season if the Cowboys find a way to lose this game.