When the NFL schedule is released over the summer, everyone has the tendency to circle what they believe will be the most enticing matchups. Most likely, there were not a ton of circles drawn around the matchup between the Cowboys (2-1) and the Carolina Panthers (3-0) in Week 4… yet here we are.
Dallas is coming off their second straight win in impressive fashion over Philadelphia, and Carolina is rolling with an undefeated start behind new quarterback Sam Darnold. Both teams enter Week 4 without some key pieces, but still have a chance to solidify their name on the list of NFC contenders.
Here are five additional storylines for each team heading into Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
- Carolina is off to a 3-0 start for the first time in six seasons after their 24-9 win over the Houston Texans last week on Thursday night. Sam Darnold threw for over 300 yards and rushed for a couple of scores in a game the Panthers never trailed. However, wide receiver D.J. Moore stole the show with 126 yards on just eight receptions against a thin Texans secondary.
- Thursday's win didn't come without a cost. Carolina lost key members on both sides of the ball as star tailback Christian McCaffrey and rookie corner Jaycee Horn sustained injuries. McCaffrey strained his hamstring in the second quarter and left the game shortly after. He will not be placed on injured reserve but is most likely out for the next few games. Unlike McCaffrey, Horn, a former Dallas draft target, will be placed on IR and is expected to have surgery to repair several broken bones in his foot.
- In wake of the news surrounding Horn, the Panthers' front office made a move in attempt to solidify the cornerback position. Carolina acquired second-year corner C.J. Henderson from Jacksonville for a third-round pick and tight end Dan Arnold. Henderson was the ninth overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft and has yet to live up to the sky-high expectations. He is expected to make his debut for the Panthers Sunday afternoon.
- This may bring up some bad memories for Cowboys fans, but this is the first trip to AT&T Stadium for Carolina since their 33-14 blowout win on Thanksgiving in 2015. That season just so happens to be the last time a Carolina team started the season 3-0, and with their win against the Cowboys, improved to 11-0 on the year. Two interception returns in the first half, one from Kurt Coleman and one from Luke Kuechly, opened the game in a big way. Then Cam Newton, on his way to the MVP award, led the charge to open what was a 33-6 lead before a late Dallas score made the final look a little better.
- Head coach Matt Rhule made his return to Texas last week in Houston but completes the Texas two-step with a return to AT&T Stadium where he coached on multiple occasions with Baylor University. In his three seasons as the Bears' head coach, Rhule led one of the more impressive turnarounds in collegiate football. He managed to take a 1-11 record during his first season in Waco, and turn it into a top-10 ranking, an appearance in the Big 12 championship game, and a Sugar Bowl berth against Georgia. Rhule is attempting a similar turnaround now in his second year with Carolina after taking over a 5-11 Panthers team from 2019.
- The buzz is beginning to grow as Dallas has now strung together back-to-back impressive wins to get above .500 for the first time since Week 12 of 2019. On the strength of 160 rushing yards and two takeaways the Cowboys dominated the Eagles 41-21 on Monday Night Football and took sole possession of first place in the NFC East. It was Dallas' fourth straight home win over Philadelphia and arguably their most complete 'team win' of the Mike McCarthy era.
- One of the major storylines from Monday night was the return of Dak Prescott to AT&T Stadium for the first time since his compound fracture ankle injury in Week 5 of the 2020 season. Prescott was visibly emotional and reflective prior to the game but still delivered a masterful performance behind center. He finished his night 21/26 for 238 yards and three touchdowns. The offense finished with 380 yards, the first time in Prescott's last seven starts that Dallas has not tallied 400-plus total yards.
- Before last week's bout with the Chargers, it had been 21 straight games since the Cowboys had scored a touchdown on their opening drive. A streak that dated all the way back to the 2019 season. Not only did the Dallas offense end that streak in Week 2, but they began another streak a week later. With Ezekiel Elliott's touchdown run in the first quarter, Dallas has now scored on the opening drive in each of the last two weeks, and now set a franchise record with 13 straight games with a touchdown in the first quarter.
- Entering Week 4, the Cowboys defense leads the NFL in takeaways (8) and are tied for the lead in turnover differential (+5). They also have the longest active streak in the NFL for games with multiple takeaways, sitting at seven straight. A big reason for these numbers is Trevon Diggs, who has an interception in each of the first three games, the first Cowboys defender to do so since Everson Walls in 1985. With an interception on Sunday, Diggs would tie the franchise record for the longest interception streak.
- No player has had a tougher task over the last two weeks than second-year offensive tackle Terence Steele. Despite the pressure, Steele has filled the shoes of La'el Collins at right tackle admirably against the Chargers and Eagles. In Week 2, he allowed just three pressures and no quarterback hits on 62 offensive snaps against Nick Bosa. For his encore, he posted the sixth best run blocking grade of the week according to Pro Football Focus for his contributions against the Eagles.