Cowboys top perfect Panthers, and their big-play defense should have NFC worried

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There were few questions about the Dallas Cowboys' offense entering this season.

As long as Dak Prescott is healthy, it's going to be potent. 

The defense? That was an altogether different prospect. The NFL's 28th-ranked unit in 2020 looked like the weak link of a franchise desperately hoping to return to Super Bowl glory. Dallas' young defenders apparently missed that memo.

The Cowboys prevailed, 36-28 in a showdown with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday to move both teams to 3-1. Their offense — led by 143 Ezekiel Elliott rushing yards and four Dak Prescott passing touchdowns — was dynamic, as usual. But it's the efforts of a ball-hawking, playmaking defense that should have fellow NFC contenders concerned. 

Cowboys defenders
Micah Parsons (11) and cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the Cowboys defense gave up 28 points and allowed 379 yards of offense. But it came up with five sacks of Sam Darnold and two turnovers on interceptions from rising star Trevon Diggs. It was the exact kind of effort the Cowboys need to balance an offense that's expected to get the job done every week. 

Sunday's game was tight at halftime. A failed two-point conversion by the Cowboys was the difference in a 14-13 Panthers lead. Then the Cowboys piled on in the third quarter. After Carolina's opening drive ended with a missed Zane Gonzalez field-goal attempt, the Cowboys responded with a four-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a 35-yard Prescott strike to Amari Cooper. 

The Cowboys then forced a three-and-out and again needed just four plays to score their next touchdown on a drive highlighted by Elliott's 47-yard run to set Dallas up inside the Carolina 10-yard line. After another failed two-point conversion, the Panthers got the ball back still within striking distance, trailing 26-14.

That's when Diggs put the game to bed. 

More big plays from red-hot Diggs

With the Panthers facing third-and-5 near midfield, Darnold looked over the middle for Robby Anderson. Instead, he found Diggs, who snagged his fourth interception of the season. The turnover set up another efficient drive from the Cowboys, who needed just three plays this time to extend their lead to 33-14 on a 23-yard pass from Prescott to Cedrick Wilson.

Carolina's next possession? It ended with another Diggs interception of Darnold. This time he outfought intended receiver DJ Moore for a bobbling pick on the sideline to retake possession in Carolina territory. 

If Diggs' first interception didn't put the game out reach, his second and league-leading fifth of the season certainly did. Meanwhile five different Cowboys combined to sack Darnold five times, including two from defensive end Randy Gregory, the former top prospect who's looking to become a fixture on the Dallas defense after a suspension-marred start to his career. 

Micah Parsons also picked up a sack, bringing his total to 2.5 through four games as he continues to bolster his early case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The inside linebacker has made plays all over the field this season, whether at his natural position or filling in on the edge as a pass rusher for a unit that's been beset with injuries. 

Cowboys don't need defense to be a shutdown unit

Sunday's performance wasn't a one-off. Dallas entered Week 4 with a league-best eight takeaways, a trend that could continue behind rising stars Parsons and Diggs, who's breaking out after a mixed bag of a rookie season. And that's what the Cowboys need. 

Don't get things wrong. The Cowboys' defense is going to get gashed for big plays. It's going to allow big performances. It's not a shutdown unit. But it doesn't have to be with Prescott and company dealing on the other side of the ball.

If it makes a few plays a game and can set the Dallas offense up with short fields like it did on Sunday, that's a recipe for success. And a reason for fellow NFC contenders to worry.

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