It was a case of too little, too late for the Dallas Cowboys in their season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers.
The Cowboys offense struggled badly in the first half and then couldn't quite do enough in the second in a 16-8 loss to the host team. Overall, the stats weren't remarkably different … at least on paper. Carolina outgained the Cowboys, 293 to 232, had more first downs, 20-17, and held a narrow time of possession, 30:36 to 29:24.
But that doesn't tell the true tale of the tape. The Panthers largely dominated through the first two quarters as Dallas punted on all five of its first half possessions and managed only 60 yards of offense. That included 18 yards on seven carries for Ezekiel Elliott and 6-of-10 passing for 46 yards by Dak Prescott.
If not for the Dallas defense, things could have been much worse. Still, the Cowboys had trouble containing Cam Newton early on, as the Panthers quarterback continually used the read-option to pick Dallas apart. In the first quarter alone he had 59 yards on five rushes with another 40 yards on four pass completions. But he finished with just 64 rushing yards for the day, so the Cowboys were seemingly able to clamp down some on the read-option as the game went along.
Again, things could have been worse. On the Panthers' first possession of the game, Daniel Ross stripped running back Christian McCaffrey of the ball on the Dallas 5-yard line with DeMarcus Lawrence there to scoop up the prize.
Carolina then crossed into Cowboys territory again on their next series, but the defense this time forced a punt. Still, they were losing the field position game, starting at their own 14-yard line, which was then pushed back even farther when Prescott was immediately sacked for 7 yards.
Unable to make much ground, Dallas compounded the issue by allowing a 30-yard punt return by Damiere Byrd to set the Panthers up at the Cowboys' 35-yard line. Seven plays later, and Carolina was in the end zone. McCaffrey this time did the bulk of the work, slamming his way between the tackles four times for a total of 26 yards.
But it was Newton getting the scoring honors. On second-and-goal at the Dallas 4-yard line, he faked a handoff to McCaffrey and then walked in virtually untouched off right tackle after the Dallas defense collapsed on the running back. With that the Panthers had a lead they would never relinquish, 7-0.
And it was more of the same through the rest of the first half, the Cowboys again failing to convert a single third down. Of course, they certainly weren't making things any easier as they faced third-and-26, -17, -10, -11 and -7.
Somewhat remarkably, though, the Cowboys were only down 10-0 at the half, as Carolina mishandled the clock in the final seconds before the break and had to settle for a chip-shot 27-yard field goal.
Finally, Dallas showed some life in the third quarter as the defense forced punts on the Panthers' first two possessions. Meanwhile, the Cowboys offense crossed into enemy territory on each of their first two possessions of the second half, but came away with no points.
On the second of those, Dallas reached the Carolina 29-yard line thanks to their first third-down conversion of the game, a 16-yard pass to Cole Beasley on third-and-11. For his part, Beasley finished with 73 receiving yards off seven catches, both game highs. But his work went for naught as a holding call on right tackle La'el Collins pushed the team back 10 yards.
Unable to make up the lost ground, the Cowboys gave Brett Maher, the new kicker who surprisingly won the job out of training camp from incumbent Dan Bailey, a chance to get Dallas on the board. But on his first NFL attempt, a 47-yarder, he pushed the kick wide right.
After that miscue, the Panthers took the ball at their own 37-yard line and marched right down the field in six plays as the clock ticked over into the fourth quarter. While Newton and McCaffrey again did the heavy lifting, fullback Alex Armah picked up the final yard for the score. A bad snap led to no extra point, but Carolina still pushed their lead to a seemingly insurmountable 16-0 advantage.
Unwilling to give up, though, Cowboys refused to throw in the towel. They finally reached the red zone first and then finished off the drive with their first touchdown of the game. Prescott went 4-for-4 in his pass attempts for 26 yards and scrambled for another 9. Elliott also got involved, carrying the ball five times for 30 yards, the last of which was an option around the right end from 4 yards out. Prescott was then successful on a quarterback draw for the two-point conversion, the game suddenly exciting with less than eight minutes to play.
And when the defense then responded by forcing a punt, all the momentum seemed to be riding with the Cowboys.
Starting at their own 21-yard line, they quickly moved out to midfield. But a sack, another underthrown pass and the team's second delay of game penalty for the game pushed the Cowboys back to a third-and-23 at their own 39-yard line. But this was fourth-down territory and after a dump-off to Elliott gained 13, it was fourth-and 10 at the Panthers' 48-yard line. But under heavy pressure, Prescott's throw to Deonte Thompson on the left sideline sailed a little too high, the ball going over on downs back to the home team.
Once again, however, the Dallas defense did its part, forcing a three-and-out. But with the ball at their own 20-yard line after the punt, Prescott faced an all-out assault from the Carolina defense, throwing the ball away on first down, scrambling for 3 yards on second and then getting sacked and fumbling on third down. With the ball recovered by the Panthers, Dallas' day was done.
With the loss, the Cowboys fell to 0-1 on the young season. They will now return home to host the rival New York Giants on Sunday Night Football next weekend.