A long weekend off gave the Panthers a chance to forget about football for four days.
When they returned from their bye week Monday, reality sank in: It’s must-win time if they want to salvage their season, beginning this weekend against Dallas.
“We’ve obviously got a sense of urgency. We don’t have any more bye weeks. We’re here throughout the rest of the year,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “So we’ve got to come out now and get wins. It’s crunch time. So we’ve got to get it done.”
The Panthers (1-4) have dropped three in a row since beating New Orleans 35-27 on Sept. 16. A blowout loss to the Giants was followed by close defeats to Atlanta and Seattle when the Panthers failed to make the decisive plays in the fourth quarter.
But Tolbert said there’s no point rehashing what could have been.
“It’s easy to sit here and say we should be 4-1, 5-0, 3-2. But at the end of the day when that clock hits zero, we have to be on top and we haven’t been thus far,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep trying to get better and hopefully things start going our way.”
The Panthers’ early season troubles extended to the training room during the bye week, when they learned Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil was lost for the year with a foot injury. Kalil had surgery Monday to repair a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot.
Right guard Geoff Hangartner will start at center against a Cowboys defense ranked second in the NFL, allowing just 285.2 yards a game. The problem for Dallas (2-3) has been turnovers.
The Cowboys have 12 giveaways and are tied for 30th with a turnover margin of minus-8. Quarterback Tony Romo has thrown an interception in six consecutive games and has nine interceptions overall, more than any quarterback except Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden, who has 10.
Romo also has lost two fumbles, nearly matching his total of 13 giveaways the entire 2011 season.
“A lot of teams are mixing up their coverages and disguising on him a lot. He’s not been reading well,” Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. “He has his flaws, but he has his good plays, too. He can extend plays and get them downfield. He can help them out with his feet a lot, too.
“We’ve got to contain him, put a lot of pressure on him, make him make bad decisions and get after him.”
The Cowboys likely will be without leading rusher DeMarco Murray against the Panthers after the former Oklahoma standout sprained his foot in Sunday’s 31-29 loss at Baltimore. Backup tailback Felix Jones ran 18 times for 92 yards against the Ravens after getting three carries the first four games.
The Panthers defended the run well against Seattle, keeping Marshawn Lynch – the league’s third-leading rusher – mostly in check. But they didn’t win.
“Every game is a must-win game for us. But I feel like there’s extra pressure put on for this game. We need a win bad, especially at home,” Johnson said.
“We’ve got to win now,” he said. “If we want to do something special, we’ve got to win now.”
Coach Ron Rivera said his team displayed a lot of energy Monday following the break. But he knows that energy – along with that of the fans’ – will last only so long without victories.
“I think the biggest thing we have to do is win, whether it’s the Cowboys or whoever,” Rivera said. “Anytime you play a high-profile team and you win, it does help you.
“You go back and talk about beating New Orleans. That’s a high-profile team. Whenever you beat them, it creates a little excitement and hopefully creates some momentum. It helps with your fans and it helps with your players.”
Tolbert, who signed with the Panthers as a free agent because he liked the direction of the organization, said the slow start has been frustrating.
“We know we’re so much better than we’re putting out there. This team is better than 1-4,” Tolbert said. “We have to show it every day.”
Sundays in particular.
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