Quincy Carter remembers his game last year against Carolina because it fell on his 25th birthday. Other than that, the first 55 minutes weren't too memorable for the Cowboys' quarterback. He was terrible: 9-for-22 passing, 77 yards, two interceptions. The Panthers led 13-0, and the stands at Texas Stadium were half-empty. The Dallas fans who had stuck around were booing—until Carter pulled the game out with a couple of late touchdown drives.
The collapse was nothing new for Carolina, which specialized in blowing fourth-quarter leads in those dreadful days. The Panthers had blown one the week before against Arizona and the week before that against Green Bay. Hard luck followed them like a shadow, and against the Cowboys they saw the game start to slip away on a pass that safety Deon Grant deflected right into the hands of wideout Joey Galloway. Then receiver Antonio Bryant made a circus catch in the final minute, and Dallas had a 14-13 win. The result leveled both teams' records at 3-3 and was the end of any happy times. The Cowboys lost their next four; the Panthers dropped their next five, extending their losing streak to eight games.
Welcome to the new era. At 8-2, Carolina is destiny's darling, having won seven games by six points or less, three of them in overtime, three others in the final minute of regulation. Right behind the Panthers in the NFC, tied for the second-best record in the conference at 7-3, is Dallas. And Sunday's matchup between these powerhouses of the flavor-of-the-month era is the best game on the board.
In its first eight games Carolina was a pound-it-out team, with a quarterback, Jake Delhomme, whose role was merely to not screw things up. But in the last two weeks, when his arm was needed, Delhomme came through. Against the Redskins on Sunday he passed for 317 yards, of which 189 went to wideout Muhsin Muhammad. The defense, with a front four that can put on a concerted rush all by itself, has been solid all year.
I get the feeling that Bill Parcells would be happy if his Cowboys were a ball-control team, but you play the hand you're dealt—and when you've got a trio of long-ball threats like Galloway, Bryant and Terry Glenn, you go deep. The problem on Sunday night was that Galloway missed the game against New England with a quadriceps injury, which put Bryant, who'd been effective as a third receiver, into the starting lineup. So instead of seeing coverage from a nickel back, Bryant was getting the attention of the varsity corners, and the offense broke down.
If Galloway is still out, I like the Panthers, even though the game's at Dallas. If Galloway is back, well, I like the Panthers anyway, on balance.
The Ravens are the pick over Seattle, until the Seahawks show the ability to beat a good team on the road. Upset special (and I could be making a big mistake here): The Bills and the Northern weather will beat the Dome babies, the Colts. The Browns will sweep the Steelers for the first time since 1988. The Packers have beaten the 49ers five straight times at Lambeau Field—make it six. The Patriots, looking ahead to Indy, get a scare in Houston but pull it out. The Jets bounce back against the Jaguars. Ditto the Chiefs against the Raiders.
The Bengals keep it going in San Diego, and the Dolphins defeat the Redskins. In the Monday-nighter, matching the shattered dreams of the Giants against the shredded hopes of the Buccaneers, I'll take the shreds, uh Bucs, because they're at home.