Carter gets offense back on track

IRVING, Texas -- This was not, Quincy Carter emphasized following the Dallas Cowboy's victory here Sunday afternoon, one of the memorable offensive performances of all-time.

But for a Cowboys attack that had gone comatose over the previous month, scoring just 31 points in four outings and having been shut out twice in that dismal stretch, the 24-20 victory over the defensively-daunting Carolina Panthers might at least have augured well for the future. If the upstart Cowboys are to qualify for a first playoff berth since 1999, they can't do it with defense alone.

And so on Sunday, with Carter playing his best game in nearly two months and the unit aided by some wily calls from the coaching staff, the offense showed at least a flickering pulse of sorts.

"Our defense has carried us a long time," said Carter, acknowledging the shortcomings of a sputtering offense. "It was important for us to come out and at least give our defense a chance. We didn't take advantage of everything, but we did enough, and it was kind of a relief for all of us to get some points up on the board."

In a game plan surprisingly skewed toward the aerial game, certainly out of character for a Parcells blueprint, Carter connected on a career-best 29 passes in 44 attempts for 254 yards, with two touchdown passes and just one interception. He had just two completions of 20 yards or more but, in general, he managed the game well. And with the outcome on the line in the closing minutes, he converted a pair of third downs to bleed the clock.

Not since an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona had Carter thrown for more than 210 yards. In six of his last seven starts, the former University of Georgia standout was held under 200 yards, and he threw only two touchdown passes and seven interceptions over the last four games. As a team, Dallas had not scored more than 20 points since Oct. 19, and their 24 points Sunday were just seven shy of their total for the past month.

During the week of preparation, Parcells and his offensive lieutenants determined that the Cowboys probably would not be able to make much of a living simply pounding the ball into the Panthers' aggressive front seven. The upshot of their brainstorming: A design in which the short, high-percentage pass was emphasized, but which also took some shots up the field against a Carolina secondary regarded as the defense's weakest link.

Because the Panthers play a high percentage of "Cover 2" zone, and cheat the safeties to the outside to help compensate for very average cornerbacks, Dallas threw principally in the middle of the field. It was not by happenstance that 18 of Carter's 29 completions came between the hashes, or that their leading receivers were tight end Jason Witten and fullback Richie Anderson, with six catches apiece.

Notable as well was that Carter's first touchdown pass of the afternoon, a 24-yarder to Joey Galloway, came on a post move that ultimately matched the fleet wide receiver against Panthers strong safety Mike Minter in zone coverage.

Parcells dressed only three running backs, so that he could deploy more bodies on special teams against one of the NFL's premier kicking games, and the speedy Aveion Cason did a nice job at times as a change-of-pace runner.

"We had opportunities we didn't convert but, the good part was, the chances were there for us," Galloway said. "The last few weeks, it just seemed like defenses were clamping down on us, suffocating us. It helped to throw the ball as much as we did, because they couldn't load up their front, just playing the run. But if we're going to keep on getting better, we have to convert every chance, because everything will get tougher now in the playoff stretch."

Indeed, the Cowboys got 31 of their 70 plays on the Carolina side of the 50-yard line, and owned the field position advantage much of the afternoon. But the Cowboys punted once from mid-field and once in Panthers territory, Billy Cundiff was wide right on field goal tries of 44 and 49 yards, and the offense too often slowed down when it moved to within the shadows of the Carolina goal post.

There were a few gimmicks installed by offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, and the most beneficial was a nifty option play, one that netted a touchdown. On a third-and-one play from Carolina's 16-yard line in the third quarter, Carter handed to Anderson on what appeared to be a doomed run. But the fullback, after drawing the defense to him, flipped the ball to Cason on a well-time lateral, and the tailback rambled for the score.

"Just a great, great call," said Carter, who will face the Miami Dolphins potent pass rush in a Thanksgiving matchup. "But we're not going to fool people most times. It's going to come down to execution and, in that area, we improved some today."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.