The term "must win" has become a cliché of sorts in today's sports world, but the Cowboys' Saturday matchup with the Carolina Panthers certainly fits the bill. The Cowboys' backs are against the wall after their 35-7 throttling by Washington on Sunday, meaning the Cowboys must win their final two games to give them a realistic chance of sneaking into the postseason with a wild-card berth. The Cowboys have been full of resolve all season but will now be asked to bounce back from their worst defeat of the year.
The Cowboys (8-6) travel for the second straight week, this time moving eastward on short rest to take on the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, noon (CST) Saturday. The Cowboys, having lost three of their last four - and four of their last five on the road - need a victory over Carolina to keep their wild-card berth alive.
Carolina, meanwhile, defeated the New Orleans Saints, 27-10, on Sunday to improve to 10-4. The Panthers, winners of three of their last four and nine of the past 11, are looking to move one step closer toward clinching the NFC South, currently holding a one-game edge over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A Carolina win and a Tampa Bay loss would clinch the South title for the Panthers. Carolina is 5-2 at home this season. The Cowboys' last trip (Jan. 3, 2004) to Charlotte, N.C., ended in a 29-10 wild-card playoff loss. The Cowboys won their only game in Carolina (three tries), 16-13, during the 2000 season.
- Panthers receiver Steve Smith has set career and league highs with his 93 receptions for 1,414 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Smith has recorded a combined eight receptions for 104 yards in two prior regular-season meetings against the Cowboys (2002-03), but torched the Cowboys with five receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown in a 2003 postseason matchup.
- Defensive end Julius Peppers, who has 7½ sacks this season, has recorded four sacks in two meetings against the Cowboys - including a three-sack performance at Texas Stadium in 2002. Fellow defensive end Mike Rucker also has 7½ sacks.
- DeShaun Foster, now the Panthers' starting running back after the team placed Stephen Davis (knee) on injured reserve last week, has rushed for 646 yards (3.9 average) and one touchdown this season. Foster carried 21 times for 75 yards in the Panthers' victory this past Sunday over New Orleans. Davis had started 11 games and played in 13.
- Cornerback Chris Gamble is tied for third in the NFC with five interceptions.
- Kicker John Kasay is perfect (12-for-12) within 40 yards this season.
Carolina had to somewhat reinvent itself offensively after losing possession receiver Muhsin Muhammad to free agency this off-season and power back Stephen Davis to injury midseason. The Panthers offense, averaging only 3.2 yards per rushing attempt, is no longer relying on the same run-heavy style of play that took it to Super Bowl XXXVIII, but the results have been just as effective. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has picked up the slack, completing a career-high 60.9-percent of his passes and also averaging a career-high 7.81 yards per pass, producing a steady offensive attack for the Panthers that is averaging an eighth-best 23.4 points per game this season.
Carolina's defense has provided its newfound quick-strike offense with additional scoring opportunities this season. Carolina boasts the league's second-highest takeaway mark (36) and the league's third-highest turnover differential (plus-12).
- Cowboys linebacker Mike Barrow - Spent three seasons (1997-'99) with the Carolina Panthers, recording two seasons of 100-plus tackles. Recorded a career-high 8½ sacks in '97, and recorded one of only two career interceptions in '98. Barrow was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after suffering a partially-torn quad tendon in his left knee.
- Cowboys wide receiver J.R. Tolver - Went to training camp with the Panthers this summer before being released and signed to the Cowboys practice squad on Oct. 19. Tolver is one of three Cowboys receivers currently on the practice squad, along with Tom Crowder and Jamaica Rector.
Carolina has held nine straight opponents to fewer than 300 yards of offense . . . The Panthers have had only one 100-yard rushing performance this season - a 131-yard effort by DeShaun Foster against Atlanta on Dec. 4 . . . Jake Delhomme has thrown one interception in each of the last three games . . . The Panthers' passing game has not been a one-man show, but it's been close. Foster is second on the team with 32 receptions behind Steve Smith's team-leading 93. The next leading receiver is second-year wideout Keary Colbert, who has caught 23 passes.