Shawn Lealos

The Dallas Cowboys are a Thanksgiving Day tradition. While many teams don’t want to play on a family-based National holiday, the Cowboys organization knows that this is a tradition for many families, who know that they can watch America’s Team every Thanksgiving afternoon. This year’s match-up is even bigger than ever before, as the Cowboys host the undefeated Carolina Panthers in a game that the Cowboys have to win.

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Cowboys Fighting For Playoff Lives

The Dallas Cowboys entered the 2015 NFL season with great odds at making the playoffs, and were actually the third best odds in the NFC to make it to the Super Bowl, after only the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. While the Packers have pulled back into contention, neither the Seahawks nor Cowboys have a winning record. Only two teams have a worse record than Dallas, and both are in the AFC. However, Dallas just got Tony Romo back and won for the first time in eight games and are only two games out of first place in the NFC East. A win against Carolina could move them within striking distance, a loss could end any hopes they have.

Tony Romo

The biggest key to the Dallas Cowboys winning this season comes on the shoulders of Tony Romo. The team won their first two games with Romo at quarterback. Every loss was with the Cowboys backup quarterbacks, first Brandon Weeden and then Matt Cassel. With Romo back, Dallas looked like a team that can compete. He threw two interceptions in the first half, but pulled things together in the second half and held on to win the game. Romo is back and the Cowboys have hope.

An Improved Defense in Dallas

In six of their seven losses, the Cowboys defense couldn’t hold the lead in the fourth quarter and collapsed. However, one of the things people don’t take into consideration was that they were playing more than ever thanks to bad offensive play and were worn out by the end. With Romo in controlling the clock, the defense stayed strong in the fourth quarter against Miami and actually recorded three sacks in the final quarter. This defense is playing better than it has in years and can help Dallas win games.

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The Unbeaten Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are one of the best coached teams in the NFL. They continuously lose important pieces, such as running back DeAngelo Williams and defensive end Greg Hardy, and the team still has no star quality wide receiver. However, they are one of only two unbeaten teams in the NFL and the first to win 10 games this season. They rank 15th in the NFL in total offense and fourth in rushing offense. They rank sixth in total defense, eighth against the pass and ninth against the run.

Cam Newton

While the Panthers are winning on defense, Cam Newton has become a legitimate NFL winning quarterback for the Panthers. He has finished four games this season with over a 100 quarterback rating, including the last three games, where he threw nine touchdowns and only one interception. The Panthers aren’t asking too much of him and he only has three games this season where he threw for over 250 yards, but he is playing very well.

Panthers Run the Ball

The Panthers offense, even without Williams, still runs the ball first and foremost. Cam Newton himself has 382 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground, to go along with his 20 touchdown passes. Jonathan Stewart is finally healthy and has run for 764 yards on the season, with four touchdowns on his own. As a team, the Panthers have run for 1,399 yards on the ground, an average of an impressive 139 yards a game.

The Panthers Defense

Ranked as the sixth best defense in the NFL, and in the top 10 against both the run and pass, this is what makes Carolina a strong challenger for this year’s Super Bowl. It is also a team effort. The Panthers rank second in the NFL with 31 sacks, and six players have multiple sacks on the season. The Panthers also rank first in turnover ratio. While they have given up the ball 12 times on the season, they have an NFL leading 25 turnovers, with 15 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. To even add to the dominance, the Panthers just activated defensive end Charles Johnson for this week’s game. 

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Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos.