Each week during the regular season, we will preview the game by identifying 3 major factors given the strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys and their opponent.
Dallas opens the regular season on the road at the Carolina Panthers at 3:25 CT on Sunday. As of Thursday morning, the Panthers are a 3-point favorite.
We think it could come down to these 3 factors:
Which line will hold up?
The Cowboys have had some injuries up front on offense this preseason. But going into the season-opener, it looks like Joe Looney will be the only would-be backup to step into the starting unit. Meanwhile, Carolina has had to plug several holes. Left guard Amini Silatolu tore a meniscus and had surgery in August and right tackle Daryl Williams suffered a torn MCL and dislocated his right patella in training camp. Williams somehow returned to practice this week, but Silatolu will still be out of action to start the season. Matt Kalil, the Panthers starter at left tackle all last season, had knee surgery and will begin the season on injured reserve.
That puts the spotlight on the Cowboys defensive line, especially defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, to see if they can take advantage of the Panthers’ makeshift offensive front.
The Cowboys’ East Coast doppelganger
The Cowboys and Panthers have some striking similarities. Both teams have a quarterback that has proven he can make plays with his arm and legs. Both teams are relying on a featured running back to have a huge season. Both teams lack a true star wide receiver, but they both have interesting pieces to put together an efficient passing game. Both teams have even had injury concerns along the offensive line in training camp. The biggest difference is that Carolina’s success hinges on the play-making ability of QB Cam Newton, while the Cowboys figure to be fueled by running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The outcome on Sunday might come down to which driving force — Newton or Elliott — has a bigger game.
Linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith have a chance to swing the balance in the Cowboys’ favor if they can limit Cam Newton’s big plays as a runner while still keeping tight coverage on Panthers Pro Bowl-caliber tight end Greg Olsen.
What if it comes down to a kick?
When the Cowboys made the surprise decision to cut ultra-reliable kicker Dan Bailey on Saturday, every eye in Texas shifted to rookie Brett Maher. A veteran of four seasons in the Canadian Football League, Maher made a 57-yard field goal versus the Texans on August 30 and the Cowboys elected to make him their kicker two days later. But he’ll be playing in his first regular season NFL game in Carolina and his success or failure will be a topic of conversation next week either way.
On the other sideline, Carolina kicker Graham Gano hit 29 of 29 field goals from inside 50 yards last season. He was 29 for 30 on all FG tries, missing one from outside 50. He actually had a better percentage on field goals than extra points as he made 34 of 37 PATs.