Cowboys face challenge

IRVING, Texas _ The Carolina Panthers are coming along at the perfect time for the Dallas Cowboys.

Not only because a head-to-head victory would return Dallas to a first-place tie with Carolina for the top spot in the NFC, plus provide the tiebreaker advantage should the teams finish with the same record.

And not just because the Panthers (8-2) present a stiff test, yet another prove-yourself game for the Cowboys after a four-week stretch that has included two shutout losses and two unimpressive wins.

The reason: Carolina represents what Dallas could be next year.

In a league where recent history is filled with teams going from losing records to Super Bowls, these teams could be part of a new trend _ going from really bad to pretty good in one season, then improving from there.

Carolina was 1-15 in 2001, losing its last 15 to cost coach George Seifert his job. John Fox replaced him and brought in a new mindset focusing on defense, determination and discipline.

Voila. Led by Rodney Peete, whom fans hardly rallied around, the Panthers opened 2002 with three straight wins. Although a rut followed, they closed with four wins in five games. By going 7-9, they had returned to respectability. Their “arrow was pointed up,” as Jerry Jones would say.

Sound familiar? How about if you put the 5-11, 5-11, 5-11 Cowboys in place of the 1-15 Panthers, Bill Parcells in Fox’s role and sub Quincy Carter for Peete?

Dallas (7-3) almost certainly will wind up with more wins than Carolina had in its turnaround season, mostly because it hasn’t had as bad of a slump _ at least, not yet. If the Cowboys even come close to as good of a closing kick as the Panthers, the playoffs are a strong possibility.

More on that later. First, a return to Carolina’s blueprint.

Key to the Panthers’ improvement this season are upgrades at their two most visible skill positions, quarterback and running back. Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis were both lured by the chance to continue what had been started the year before.

Delhomme wasn’t brought in as a savior. He didn’t even start the opener; Peete did. But he quickly emerged and has thrived, mostly because defenses are more concerned with trying to stop Davis.

The Cowboys might be interested in changing out those same vital parts.

The way Carter played the first six games, when the Cowboys averaged 25 points, earned him the right to return next season.

Yet the way he’s played the last four games, when Dallas was shut out twice and scored a total of 31 points in the other two, indicates he’ll probably have to prove he deserves to keep the job. And the competition could be stiffer than Chad Hutchinson and Tony Romo.

Dallas might go after another Delhomme type, someone with both experience and upside. Maybe Tim Couch fits that mold. A more tantalizing option is Kurt Warner, who could be available if Marc Bulger holds onto the job in St. Louis.

Hambrick has little chance of remaining the primary back. Corey Dillon would be the most enticing candidate, with Curtis Martin another possibility if Parcells believes Martin, one of his favorites, still has enough left in the tank.

A win Sunday helps Dallas’ confidence as much as its spot in the standings. An impressive win makes Miami seem all the more beatable. And a two-game roll would be the best way to go to Philadelphia 10 days later.

The Panthers have their flaws. While they win often, their games are usually close _ six of their eight wins were secured in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime.

If the Cowboys of 2004 do mimic Carolina in ’03, that might be one area they try to avoid.

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