Joseph Person’s three things to watch in Thursday’s Carolina Panthers game at Dallas:
Can the Panthers keep Hardy off Cam?
This is the game everyone circled when schedules were released in April. The return of Tony Romo makes it more interesting, but all eyes will be on Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy when fans settle in for some post-feast football. The things that make Hardy a premiere pass rusher are his brute strength and intensity, which will be amped up vs. his former team. But Hardy looks heavier after his long layoff, and he could be emotionally drained by the fourth quarter. Maybe. Left tackle Michael Oher knows Hardy as well as anyone, having played with him in high school and college. But Oher will need occasional help from a tight end or back to make sure Hardy doesn’t plant Cam Newton in the turf.
Pressuring Romo into a Romo moment
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Romo remains one of the game’s great gunslingers. He’s never met a throwing window he didn’t think he could zip a pass through. That has led to plenty of late-game drama – good and bad. Romo likes to improvise when the pocket breaks down, as he did with an opposite-handed throw out of the end zone last week at Miami. But if the Panthers’ front four can disrupt Romo, it will play into the hands of a Carolina secondary that leads the league with 15 interceptions. Getting Charles Johnson back from a two-month layoff will give the Panthers’ pass rush a boost. But the key will be DT Kawann Short. If the Panthers’ sack leader (six) can flush Romo out of the pocket and force him to throw on the run, Carolina will add to its INT total.
Linebacker play will be key
There might be more interesting matchups (start with Dez Bryant vs. Josh Norman), but this game could be decided by which team best stops the run. Both teams rank among the league’s top eight rushing offenses, with the Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart and Dallas’ Darren McFadden both coming off 100-yard games. Since McFadden emerged as the featured back in Week 7, only Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin have rushed for more yards. The former Oakland back is averaging 98.8 yards a game over the past five weeks, with a 4.1 yards-per-carry average. Panthers LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are coming off relatively quiet games vs. Washington, but it’s hard to imagine them failing to get off blocks two weeks in a row. Advantage, Panthers.
Panthers at Cowboys
AT&T Stadium, Dallas
Thursday, 4:30 p.m.