The Carolina Panthers are 3-0, and they face their toughest test of the season at the 2-1 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Oct. 3 (1 p.m.).
The Cowboys are coming off a 41-21 beatdown of Philadelphia on Monday night. As of Friday afternoon, the Panthers were listed as 4.5-point underdogs, according to ESPN.com.
Leading Dallas from under center is veteran quarterback Dak Prescott, who has been impressive in his return to action after suffering a season-ending broken ankle in 2020. Through three games, Prescott has completed 77.5% of his passes for 878 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Cowboys have a myriad options in the passing game. Prescott’s favorite target this season has been CeeDee Lamb, who has caught 18 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown. Carolina will also have to pay attention to Amari Cooper (19 catches, 189 yards, two touchdowns) and tight end Dalton Schultz (14 catches, 143 yards, two touchdowns).
On the ground, Dallas boasts a two-headed attack featuring running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, who have combined for 382 yards and four touchdowns on 71 carries so far this season. Right now the Cowboys rank fifth in the league in total offense, averaging 416.7 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Carolina still leads the league in total defense, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and sacks. The Panthers’ defense added a new piece this week in cornerback C.J. Henderson, who came over in a trade from Jacksonville.
Carolina traded Dan Arnold and a 2022 third-round pick for Henderson and a 2022 fifth. Henderson was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Jaguars but was a disappointment with an overall grade of 57.9 last season, according to Pro Football Focus
The Panthers are hoping Henderson can adequately fill in at corner in place of rookie first-round Jaycee Horn, who suffered a broken foot in Carolina’s win over Houston last Thursday.
Offensively, the Panthers will have to fill another hole brought on by injury, as Christian McCaffrey will not play Sunday after suffering a hamstring injury in the win last week. Starting in his place will be rookie fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard, who has carried the ball 19 times for 62 yards (3.3 yard average) this season.
Hubbard and Royce Freeman will carry the load in the backfield for the Panthers. Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold might have to shoulder more of the load with McCaffrey expected to miss a few games.
In three games, Darnold has completed 68.2% of his passes for 888 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. His favorite target this season by far has been D.J. Moore, who has 22 catches for 285 yards and a touchdown.
The Cowboys rank 31st in the league in total defense, allowing 331.7 yards per game. Dallas does have the September NFC Defensive Player of the Month in defensive back Trevon Diggs, who already has three interceptions in 2021.
The Panthers have won their last two meetings with the Cowboys, the most recent a 16-8 victory at the start of the 2018 season. This Sunday’s game will be broadcast nationally on FOX.