Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers defense has final word against Cowboys

Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman (20) had intercepted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and returned it for a touchdown before the game was a minute old.
Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman (20) had intercepted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and returned it for a touchdown before the game was a minute old. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

With rain in the Dallas area Thursday afternoon, they had the roof closed at Jerry World for the Panthers’ first Thanksgiving game in their history.

That meant all the noise that 90,000-plus people could muster was bouncing off the steel beams and catwalks and creating quite a racket.

And for much of the game it sounded like this: Luuuuuuuuukkkkkkke.

In truth, the cheers for Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly were intermingled with booooooos by the home crowd. But it was impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Not that it matters: This was a Thanksgiving Day roasting by the Panthers, with the defense carving Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to the (clavicle) bone.

The Panthers intercepted Romo three times, returned two for touchdowns and eventually knocked him out of the game when he re-injured his left collarbone on a sack by Thomas Davis in Carolina’s 33-14 beatdown at AT&T Stadium.

All three phases for the Panthers – offense, defense and special teams – outscored Dallas while Romo was in the game.

Free safety Kurt Coleman started the Panthers’ holiday pick parade on the Cowboys’ third play from scrimmage when he darted in front of tight end Jason Witten and bobbed and juked his way to a 36-yard touchdown less than a minute into the game.

It would get no better for Romo, whom the Cowboys (3-8) hoped could save them from a sinking season. They’d gone 3-0 in games with Romo behind center, 0-7 with everyone else.

Vegas bought into the talk, installing them as a one-point favorite when the betting lines opened. That the line flipped to Carolina (11-0) by midweek made no difference to Panthers’ players, who wear the us-against-the-world mentality like a crown.

“We heard all the noise all week long about how good their offensive line was as how much Tony was going to come in and right the ship for them. We took it as a challenge,” Davis said. “We felt like it was very disrespectful for us to be underdogs coming into this game, being a 10-0 team and playing a team that’s only won three games all year long.”

Even in a short week, the studious Kuechly managed to dive into as much video study as he could cram into three days.

It paid off during a 24-second sequence in the second quarter that assured the Panthers would remain undefeated and extend their regular-season winning streak to 15 games.

Kuechly intercepted Romo twice on consecutive plays, the first of which he returned 32 yards – following a block by Bené Benwikere – for his first NFL touchdown.

The pick came after a chess match between Davis and Romo, who audibled at the line of scrimmage. Davis heard it and asked Kuechly if he wanted to check into a different coverage that would drop Kuechly deeper in the zone coverage.

“Thomas kind of looked at me and asked if we wanted to check it. He made a great check. We echoed it out and everybody got on the same page,” Kuechly said. “It went from one thing to the other and I was able to sneak in there and grab one.”

Then he did it again.

On his second interception, Kuechly turned and ran with Witten down the seam, stuck his hands out and made an over-the-shoulder grab as Coleman decked Witten.

It was terrific coverage and a better catch. And it brought to mind a question: Remember when the knock on Kuechly was that he was a great tackler but couldn’t cover?

Yeah, well, so much for that.

Kuechly’s first two-interception game gave him 10 for his career, most among all linebackers since 2012 when Kuechly entered the league.

Of course, this being Kuechly, he says his coverage skills need honing.

“I’m still trying to work on it. It’s one of those things, you’ve always got to try to improve,” he said. “There were a couple routes where (Witten) got open and maybe the quarterback just didn’t see it.”

Despite the Cowboys’ hope for Romo’s white-knight return, the way the game unfolded should not have caught anyone by surprise.

The Panthers entered Thursday leading the league in interceptions, takeaways and a turnover margin of plus-13. The Cowboys were next to last with a minus-9 turnover margin.

With the Panthers winning the turnover battle 3-0, those margins only grew wider.

And with each pick by Kuechly, the Luuuuuukkkkeeee/Boooooooooos only got louder.

When Luke Bryan took the stage at halftime, he had a tough act to follow.

“All the away games we’ve heard him,” Kuechly said of the Panthers’ contingent. “They come strong, they cheer hard and it’s been a lot of fun with them this year.”

Another week, another win, and the fun keeps coming.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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