Now, even Bill Parcells, their harshest critic, seems ready to proclaim the Dallas Cowboys a team to watch in December -- and maybe even January -- after the way they beat the Carolina Panthers 24-20 Sunday.
"We have a lot of football left, but we're going to be in the hunt for a while," said Parcells, showing more emotion than he has all season. "I think we've got a real shot to do something here."
Quincy Carter threw two touchdown passes to revive a sputtering offense, then made his best plays by keeping alive the final drive and running out the clock in an otherwise sloppy, penalty-filled battle for the best record in the NFC.
Dallas (8-3) remains tied with Philadelphia for the NFC East lead and moves into a three-way tie with the Eagles and Panthers for the best record in the conference. The Eagles play at Carolina next Sunday; Dallas is at Philadelphia the following Sunday.
Next up for the Cowboys are the Dolphins on Thursday. Parcells has been saying all season he would reserve judgment on this team until after that game, but his excitement over this victory indicates his expectations are rising.
"I just thought our guys were really good today," he said. "They hung in there, fought it out and made some clutch plays. ... This was by far the best win I've had in Dallas."
The Panthers are the kings of the comeback, having won six times in the final two minutes or overtime. They couldn't make it seven.
Carolina had second-and-goal from the 6 with four minutes left when Todd Steussie was called for a false start. It was the team's fourth such penalty, the third by Steussie. Pushed back to the 11, the drive stalled there -- then went to the 16 on a delay of game before fourth down.
Panthers coach John Fox already had decided to kick a field goal and hope to get the ball back rather than try for a tying touchdown.
John Kasay did his part by making a 34-yarder. With 3:47 left, it was up to Carolina's defense.
On third-and-9 from the 21, Carter ran up the middle for only four yards -- but two Panthers were flagged. Dallas declined a 15-yard illegal contact penalty on Deon Grant and took a 15-yard facemasking on Brentson Buckner.
"If we didn't get two penalties on third down, it would've been good thinking," Fox said of his strategy. "When you do that, you deserve to lose."
Dallas got another first down with a 13-yard pass to Jason Witten on third-and-8 with 1:39 left, letting them run out the clock on the Panthers' second consecutive road loss. Carolina won its three previous road games with overtime field goals.
"We can't always rely on us coming back at the end," Buckner said.
In winning their fifth consecutive at home, the Cowboys got three touchdowns from an offense that had scored just four the last four games, with two shutouts along the way.
"The sky's the limit for our team," linebacker Dexter Coakley said. "If we can get that through our head, we'll be right where we want to be at the end."
The two most run-oriented teams in the NFL were forced by solid defenses to take it to the air.
Carter ended up with the most attempts (44) and completions (29) of his career, for 254 yards. He threw an early 24-yard TD pass to Joey Galloway and a 5-yarder to Jeff Robinson -- whose primary job is deep snapping -- in the third quarter.
Carolina had been answering each Dallas score with one of its own, tying the game at 3, 10 and 17. The Cowboys went ahead for good on a third-and-1 handoff to fullback Richie Anderson that turned into an option pitch to Aveion Cason for a 16-yard score.
"Parcells knows when to call plays like that," Carter said.
Carolina's Jake Delhomme was 9-for-24 for 175 yards. His first two touchdown drives were also aided by long pass interference penalties against Dallas; a third came on the Panthers' final scoring drive.
Stephen Davis became Carolina's single-season rushing leader (1,143) and tied the TD mark (seven), but otherwise had a forgettable game. After gaining 32 yards on eight carries, he had just 27 on 18 tries.
- Carolina had 75 rushing yards. Dallas had 65.
- Cowboys CB Terence Newman had an interception deep in Dallas territory overturned by replay. Teammate Roy Williams returned an interception to the Carolina 11 on the next play.
- Kasay missed a 52-yarder.
- Dallas' Billy Cundiff missed from 49 and 44, his first two-miss game this season.
The Associated Press News Service
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