FRISCO, Texas – As usual, here are the two big keys I'm looking at for Week 1.
How the Cowboys and Panthers handle these two factors will determine who opens the season with a win.
Here we go:
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
This game plan for the Cowboys should be pretty simple -- they want to run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott. The Panthers, on the other hand, have one of the best fronts in the league. Elliott came into camp in outstanding shape and told the media that he is ready to carry the load if called upon.
The key to the Dallas offense is their ability to stay ahead of the chains. Downs where they gain four or more yards on first downs is what takes the pressure of Dak Prescott and this offense. The Panthers pride themselves on their ability to control the run and are able to do so in large part due their inside three of Dontari Poe, Kawann Short and Luke Kuechly.
One of Elliott's best traits is the vision he has to cut the ball back when the front side is closed down. The question for the Cowboys will be if Connor Williams and Joe Looney can work well together to not allow these inside players for the Panthers to choke the running game, much like the Denver Broncos were able to do last season.
I don't expect Williams and Looney to win every snap, but they cannot allow the Panthers to control the game from the point of attack. For the Cowboys to win this game it will be due to their ability to run the ball, which will keep them ahead of the chains. But for them to run the ball they will have to be able to control those inside three.
Carolina Panthers Win If:**
As good as the defensive front is for the Panthers, their secondary is lagging behind.
Donte Jackson will be making his first NFL regular season start with James Bradberry opposite him. Jackson is a talented risk taker who can be moved in coverage. Bradberry will not make Panthers fans forget Josh Norman, who at one time was an elite player. Veteran corner Captain Munnerlyn lines up as the nickel and of the three cornerbacks is the one that plays the best in coverage.
The Cowboys want to run the ball first, and if they have success, they will work in the play action game with Dak Prescott next. From what we've seen from Prescott, he is more of an efficient quarterback when executing the offense ahead of the chains. If he has to play in long yardage situations, then that's where the struggles begin -- such as missed passes and turnovers. If the Panthers' defensive front chokes the Cowboys' run and forces them to have to throw the ball, then this secondary has to be up to the challenge.
What is going in the Panthers favor is the uncertainty at receiver for the Cowboys. With no Dez Bryant, there is not a true No. 1 threat for the Panthers to have to deal with. This doesn't mean the Cowboys don't have talent at the position, but for the Panthers to win this game they're going to need to hold them in check.
The Panthers can't be outstanding defending the run, then have their secondary give up big plays to the Cowboys passing game and expect to win.