CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Long after Bill Parcells headed to the locker room for the final time this season, the Carolina Panthers returned to the field and ran a slow victory lap around Ericsson Stadium.
The Panthers ended the Parcells-led turnaround in Dallas by picking apart the Cowboys' top-ranked defense in a 29-10 victory in the first round of the NFL playoffs Saturday night.
The win gave Carolina some respect it thought it was owed, but that the Panthers claimed was lost in the shadows of Parcells returning the Cowboys to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
The Panthers celebrated by leaping into the stands after big plays, embracing the white-towel-waving fans, then taking their slow lap around the stadium to mark their own turnaround.
Remember, this team was 1-15 just two years ago.
"I don't have any idea whose idea that lap was," said quarterback Jake Delhomme. "I just know you have to enjoy these times, because you don't know when they'll happen again."
Delhomme threw for 273 yards and a touchdown, Stephen Davis ran for 104 yards and John Kasay, the last original Panther and the only one who played a role in Carolina's lone previous playoff victory -- a 26-17 win over Dallas in 1997 -- tied an NFL postseason record with five field goals.
It wasn't the way the Cowboys thought this game would go.
"This is abrupt and it doesn't feel good," owner Jerry Jones said. "I didn't want this to end. I just wanted this team to keep playing, keep taking the field."
After three straight 5-11 seasons, Jones lured Parcells out of retirement to lead the Dallas rebuilding effort. This was supposed to be a two-year project, but he took a huge first step by leading the Cowboys into the playoffs in Year 1.
Only there was no playoff glory. Instead, he suffered one of the worst playoff losses of his career. He lost 21-0 to Chicago while with the New York Giants in the playoffs after the 1985 season.
"I'm disappointed," he said. "But I've got to be realistic."
Although the Cowboys came into the game with the league's top-ranked defense, the Panthers made them look downright ordinary.
The game was a complete reversal of the regular-season meeting, when the Cowboys stifled Davis and held him to 59 yards rushing. That forced the game into Delhomme's hands, and he failed to deliver in Dallas' 24-20 victory.
But this time Steve Smith had five catches for 135 yards and a 32-yard touchdown and Muhsin Muhammad had four catches for 103 yards. Coupled with Davis' yards on the ground, it marked the first time all season three individual players passed the 100-yard mark against Dallas.
"We executed our game plan, the guys were focused and we knew what we had to do," Davis said.
Meanwhile, Carolina's defense dominated the rematch.
With Parcells watching in frustration from the sideline, the Cowboys could do little. Dallas had zero yards offense in the third quarter, when Delhomme threw his 32-yard touchdown pass to Smith for a 23-3 lead. Against a Dallas team that was 0-5 this season when trailing by seven or more points, Parcells knew his team was in trouble.
Dallas safety Darren Woodson showed the Cowboys' frustration later in the third period, shaking his head in disgust after Davis' 11-yard run. It set up Kasay's fourth field goal, a 32-yarder, that put Carolina up 26-3 with 12:45 left.
The Cowboys didn't give up, though. Quincy Carter put together a solid fourth-quarter drive and capped it with a 9-yard touchdown run with 7:36 to play.
But any chance of another scoring march ended when he was intercepted by Julius Peppers, who returned it 34 yards to the Dallas 11. Peppers then hopped back and sprinted through the end zone, leaping into the stands and into the arms of the white-towel waving Carolina fans.
It set up Kasay's 34-yard field goal for a 29-10 lead. A downright blowout by Carolina's standards.
The Panthers made a habit this season of winning the close ones. Delhomme led them to seven fourth-quarter or overtime victories and their average margin of victory was just 5.8 points.
The Panthers are the second team to win a playoff game with no penalties and no turnovers; Pittsburgh did so in the 1976 Super Bowl.
"That is what coach (John) Fox preaches," said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "Play tough, smart football and you can get it done. That's what worked against a great coach tonight in Parcells and a good team."
- Dallas lost consecutive games for just the second time this season.
- Davis snapped a personal nine-game losing streak against the Cowboys.
- The Panthers moved to the 1-yard line on their first possession, from where they failed to score for the first time this season.
- Smith's 135 yards receiving were the most the Cowboys allowed to one receiver this season.
- Carter finished 21-for-36 for 154 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
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