IRVING, Texas -- For much of last week, the Dallas Cowboys defensive linemen heard plenty of rhetoric, including several assessments from coach Bill Parcells, about how the Carolina Panthers had seemingly assembled the best front four unit in the league.
And with the Miami Dolphins arriving here later this week for the annual Thanksgiving Day contest at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys defenders likely will have to tolerate yet another string of lofty comparisons.
In the wake of the Cowboys' 24-20 victory over Carolina on Sunday afternoon, though, the Dallas defensive ends and tackles finally gained a short respite from all the discussion involving everybody else's front four. For one evening, or until they get back on the field Monday to begin practicing for a grueling third game in just a dozen days, the Dallas defensive front can revel in the realization that it, too, might rank now among the best units in the league.
Following a win that once again quieted all those whispers that the overachieving Cowboys might be on the precipice of a death spiral, and which ensured the franchise its first non-losing campaign since 1999, Parcells was flattering in gauging his team. But he also deftly deflected every opportunity to heap too much praise on the club.
"I'm happy about this win," Parcells said, "but we've got another game in three or four days. So I don't want my team to be all full of itself for more than three or four hours. It was a pivotal game for us. But by 6 o'clock tonight, I guarantee you I'll be sitting at my desk, watching film, trying to figure out how we won the game."
Across the hall, though, his charges weren't nearly as modest. And if Parcells needs any help in discerning where his upstart team gained an advantage for much of the day, all he need do is consult with any of the Cowboys' most veteran defenders.
While no one went overboard, there was plenty of chatter by and about a defensive line corps that outplayed the more heralded Panthers, and which got contributions from every member of the unit that dressed for the big NFC showdown contest.
The win leaves the Cowboys 8-3 and has them tied for the best record in the NFC heading into a five-week playoff stretch run. What it did not leave them was shy of syllables for describing the role of the front four in resurrecting a franchise that had suffered through three straight 5-11 seasons.
Every time the outcome appeared to be on the line, the Dallas defensive line seemed to be on top of the situation, even some Panthers players conceded.
"We like to think that we're pretty good, too, you know?" said defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, doing his best Warren Sapp impersonation by splattering tobacco juice onto a well-stained white towel at his feet. "Yeah, we heard what people were saying about their linemen, and we took it a little personally. We wanted to show people we could play with them. What better place to make a statement than in a game like this with all of the hype people were paying it, right? I mean, we've got a lot of guys who can play, too."
In fact, while the performance of the Dallas front four might not have been so impressive on paper, it was in the group's overall depth that the Cowboys unit stood out.
This is not, as has been pointed out countless time this season, the kind of defensive front Parcells favored in his first three head coaching incarnations. Indeed, The Tuna likes the big catch, loves mammoth 300-pound behemoths who can stuff the run and eat up space. But it is a credit to Parcells that he has adapted, and played the hand dealt him here, and a credit to the Dallas line that it has outperformed expectations.
As usual, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer utilized eight linemen, in an effort to keep fresh bodies pounding on Carolina star tailback Stephen Davis and hounding quarterback Jake Delhomme most of the day. The group included three veterans -- ends Eric Ogbogu and Kenyon Coleman and tackle Leonardo Carson -- who weren't even with the Cowboys at the outset of training camp this summer.
The additions have added some size, relatively speaking, to the line group. Parcells and Zimmer have allowed that bolstering the defensive line, by signing Ogbogu (Cincinnati) and Carson (San Diego) after they were released, and trading for Coleman (Oakland), has meant the biggest improvement since the start of the season.
Dallas still uses a lot of slants upfront to accentuate its overall quickness but, as displayed here Sunday, the Cowboys can occasionally muscle up on people now, too. Said Glover: "This game showed that we can dish out some punishment of our own."
Spurred by the line, and by the dogged determination of undersized middle linebacker Dat Nguyen to try to make every tackle in the running game, the Cowboys limited Carolina to 244 total yards and just 15 first downs. They stifled Davis, holding him to 59 yards on 26 carries, and Delhomme completed just nine passes, most of them under duress.
The hard-running Davis blasted for 28 yards on his first four carries, two of them coming when the Panthers used "wham" action to get the tight end blocking on the nose tackle, but he managed just 31 yards on his final 22 runs. In the second half, it was especially obvious that Davis was running with his head on a swivel, searching for holes that were not there, tip-toeing into the Dallas defense instead of ripping through it.
"Their line," Davis said, "got really got penetration. Give them credit."
Delhomme threw for 175 yards, but 64 percent of that output came on three completions, of 35 yards (to Muhsin Muhammad), 36 yards (Ricky Proehl) and 41 yards (Steve Smith). His six other completions totaled 61 yards, and there were times when Delhomme's best bet was to throw the ball deep and hope for a flag, as the Cowboys were thrice penalized for pass interference for a total of 63 yards.
"Ridiculous," said cornerback Terence Newman, shaking his head, after being hit with a 13-yard penalty that led to a Carolina field goal in the fourth quarter. "I suppose I don't understand the rules. Maybe someone can explain them to me. Thank goodness our guys upfront played so well."
Although the Cowboys line was credited with just one sack, it buzzed Delhomme all day, and forced a key interception. The third-quarter pickoff came on one of the weirdest, and most ironic, sequences of the '03 season. Newman had apparently intercepted an errant Delhomme effort at the Dallas 24-yard line to quell a Carolina series. But Panthers coach John Fox challenged the interception and replays revealed the ball hit the ground before Newman pulled it under him.
On the ensuing snap, a third-and-11 from the Carolina 45-yard line, Ogbogu roared past Panthers left tackle Todd Steussie, who had a bad day at the office with three false start penalties, and impacted Delhomme as he delivered. The ball squirted in the air, and was grabbed by Roy Williams, who returned it 30 yards. Two plays later, the Cowboys scored on a five-yard pass to tight end Jeff Robinson, for a 17-10 advantage.
"When the challenge went their way, I didn't have time to think about anything, except trying to make a play on third down," said Ogbogu, who has three sacks, four fumbles forced and three pass deflections in the past five games. "To tell the truth, I've just been trying to fit in here, and I think I've finally gotten (comfortable) with things. Guys here are really helpful, it's a tight group, and we all just want to do our jobs. This is probably the hardest working group I've been around. Guys try to go the extra mile around here."
Some extra film study last week helped Ogbogu author one of the game's biggest plays. In watching tape of Steussie working against Indianapolis end Dwight Freeney from early in the season, Ogbogu saw that the Carolina tackle might be susceptible to a speed rush off the edge. That's precisely what got him around Steussie, deep into the backfield, and on top of an unsuspecting Delhomme.
"There might be some (front four units) that are better than us," said end Greg Ellis. "Not many, mind you, but a few. But nobody is going to outwork us. No one has more pride than us. And today, I thought, we showed our stuff."