Luke Kuechly, defense dominate Cowboys and keep Panthers unbeaten

Ad Pro Test Clip 193 - March 2017 (1:21)

Ad Pro Test Clip 193 - March 2017 (1:21)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This game story, for a change, isn't about Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

It's about middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a defense that has gotten overlooked to some degree because of all the attention Newton has received for his running, throwing and dancing.

OK, Newton does get a mention for his diving, 4-yard, third-quarter touchdown run that basically iced Thursday's 33-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. And he's sure to get a lot of attention for throwing a curve to those expecting him to dab afterward.

Instead, he did the twist, "Hit Dem Folks" and then his patented "Superman" celebration.

But enough about dancing. The league's fourth-ranked defense reminded that the Panthers are a complete team. Kuechly reminded that he's still the best middle linebacker in the NFL.

The defense set the tone with three first-half interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. Kuechly had two of the interceptions, one of which he took back 32 yards for a score.

The underdog Panthers weren't as dominant as the Chicago Bears were in 1985, when they came into a game at Dallas as an underdog with a 10-0 record. The Bears, with current Panthers coach Ron Rivera playing linebacker, won 44-0.

But the defense did dominate Thursday as Carolina improved to 11-0.

It limited Dallas to 117 total yards through three quarters and sent starting quarterback Tony Romo to the bench in the second half with a shoulder injury after a Thomas Davis sack.

Newton might get better style points for his dancing, but defense wins championships.

What it means: The Panthers have beaten three of teams that were popular preseason choices to win the NFC: Dallas, Seattle and Green Bay. They can wrap up the NFC South title with a victory Dec. 6 over New Orleans coupled with an Atlanta loss against Minnesota or Tampa Bay. They can clinch a playoff berth Sunday if several scenarios take place. Who saw this coming?

One reason to get excited: If you like how Newton has played the past month, check this out: For his career in December and January, Newton's Total Quarterback Rating is almost 20 points higher and he has rushed for almost 15 more yards per game compared with the beginning of the season.

One reason to panic: Not really a panic situation, but cornerback Josh Norman got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for overdoing his celebration after stopping Dez Bryant on a touchdown-pass attempt in the fourth quarter. Norman has had two such penalties this season and has been close a few other times. One of those could be costly in the playoffs.

Fantasy watch: Kicker Graham Gano often gets overlooked in the Newton-mania, but efforts such as Thursday's are another reason the Panthers are undefeated. Gano had field goals from 49, 43, 25 and 50 yards on a day when the offense struggled to score touchdowns. His 43-yard attempt was blocked late with the outcome decided. Still, it was a solid effort.

Hardy watch: Much of the talk prior to the game was about former Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, now a member of the Cowboys. Hardy didn't have a tackle in the first half. He came out late in the second half with the medical staff and went to the bench.

Giveaway-takeaway: The Panthers came into the game leading the NFL in takeaway-giveaway margin at plus-13 with a league-best 25 interceptions. Their status shouldn't be hurt after collecting those three interceptions.

What were they thinking? The Panthers passed on a 53- or 54-yard field goal attempt with a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. Gano already had converted from 49 yards. Then Brad Nortman shanked a 22-yard punt. That early in the game, a field goal would have been the more aggressive move. But this is nitpicking.


Ad Pro Test Clip 193 - March 2017

Ad Pro Test Clip 193 - March 2017