A year ago, Panthers started slowly and surged into playoffs
If any team can relate to the 2015 Cowboys, there is a good chance it is the 2014 Carolina Panthers. That team started the season 2-0 but entered December 3-8-1.
From there, the Panthers swept through December, won a very poor division with a 7-8-1 record, and even won a playoff game against Arizona before bowing out in Seattle. Now, as winners of 14 regular-season games in a row (four last December, 10-0 this year), the Panthers come to town as the clear favorite for the No. 1 seed this January.
The two franchises have met 12 times since Carolina was born in 1995, with Dallas 9-1 in the regular season, but 0-2 in the playoffs.
The Panthers are led by the charismatic QB Cam Newton who has delivered on his draft day promise out of Auburn with two playoff berths in his first four seasons and appears to be on the periphery of this season's MVP race. But Carolina has a roster full of difference-makers. Let's discuss a few of the others:
RB Jonathan Stewart
The 13th pick of the running back-heavy 2008 draft that included Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, Stewart has certainly experienced an odd career path that started with 21 touchdowns and 2,000 yards his first two seasons. From there, he was plagued by injuries and appeared to be in decline by 2013. But in his last two seasons, he has regained his health and become a real weapon with his fantastic skill set. He is built with strength and quickness that make him elusive in tight spaces. He and Newton present a zone read threat in which defenses must account for both RB and QB at the mesh point. He is extremely difficult to contain between the tackles.
LB Luke Kuechly
He is an annual member of the All-Pro team. The 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was selected ninth in the 2012 draft out of Boston College. Kuechly is the prototype middle linebacker in the generation after Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. His sideline-to-sideline skills are disruptive, and his athletic traits are as impressive as any linebacker in the game. He is durable (although he has dealt with a concussion this year) and sniffs out plays with regularity. With equally athletic linebackers around him, the Panthers control the shallow zones with great effectiveness, and it is very difficult to run against Carolina because of this group.
DT Kawann Short
In 2013, Short was thought to be a first-round pick, but he slid into the middle of the second round where Carolina grabbed him at pick 44. The Cowboys, who picked three spots later, were highly rumored to desire him, but they would settle on TE Gavin Escobar. Short was a gifted player out of Purdue, but there were questions about his motor and his consistency that may have cost him during the draft process. The finished product has been one of the breakout stars in 2015. He was brought on slowly, but now in his third season, he has six sacks and has been in on 36 sacks from an interior spot where stats are not always easy to accumulate. When he gets single-teamed, he is just too athletic to deal with. He can overpower linemen, then shed and close in on a QB with surprising straight-line speed. The entire defensive line is a talented group, but this one has been superb against the run and pass.