IRVING, Texas – If they need some additional inspiration, the Cowboys need look no further than the opposite sideline on Thursday afternoon.
True, the Carolina Panthers, at 10-0, are one of just two unbeaten teams left in the NFL this season. But it was just a year ago that they faced the same dire straits as Dallas.
See if this sounds familiar: in 2014, the Panthers jumped out to a 2-0 start, but they couldn't maintain. Entering their Week 12 bye, they had dropped five straight and they sat at 3-8-1 on the year. Undeterred, they turned their season around.
"We were 3-8-1 at one point and were able to get it rolling, get it headed in the right direction," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "A lot of things had to fall in place and they did."
For starters, the Panthers ripped off four straight wins to close their season. They started the streak with a 41-10 thrashing of New Orleans on the road, and they eked out close wins against Tampa Bay and Cleveland before crushing Atlanta on the road to close the season.
"It was pretty much week-to-week," said Cam Newton. "Nothing that was anything special besides players coming in and working and holding themselves accountable."
To be fair, the Panthers benefitted from a woeful division. The Saints and Falcons struggled down the stretch, slumping to 7-9 and 6-10 finishes, respectively. The Buccaneers were the league's worst team, falling to a 2-14 finish. Those factors combined to help Carolina become just the second losing team to make the playoffs.
"The biggest thing, more than anything else, was the things around us happened," Rivera said. "The positive things, other teams were losing. That really helped us."
It's not hard to draw a parallel between last season's NFC South and this season's NFC East. The Cowboys bring up the rear at 3-7, but they're just a game behind Philadelphia and Washington – both sitting at 4-6 on the year. The New York Giants lead the division, but they're only two games in front of Dallas with a .500 record.
That's obviously all big picture stuff, which no football coach in his right mind is willing to discuss publicly. But when it comes to digging out of a multi-game hole, Rivera's best advice was to narrow the focus – something Cowboys coach Jason Garrett certainly knows how to do.
"The biggest thing as much as anything else was we had to continue to practice and prepare as if every game was the next most important one," Rivera said. "And I think that was the mentality the guys shared with us as coaches."
That's the refrain going around the Cowboys' facility this week, and for good reason. The Panthers are getting All-Pro caliber play from Newton, and their defense is among the league's best. As Garrett said Tuesday, it's not hard to figure out why Carolina is among the league's best teams.
"As a team we have our work cut out for us, so we have to focus on that," said Rolando McClain. "We've got a short week to prepare for a very good team. We've got to do everything we can, kind of a cram session, get your body feeling as good as you can and go out for a tough game."
There's a precedent for a turnaround, though, and it isn't lost on anyone, especially not the Panthers. Rivera, in his conference call with Dallas media, went over the problems the Cowboys have faced in painstaking detail – from the loss of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, to the struggles of the running game and more.
Speaking from experience, Rivera said it's not hard to get that turned around.
"They are, I think, on the cusp of getting ready to start rolling again," he said.