Commentary: Dallas not as good as its talent

The Dallas Cowboys remind me of a mannequin in a store window or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his Chevrolet.

They look good. But they don't do anything.

Although many of you have as much contempt for the Cowboys as you do for any team at any level in any sport, what has Dallas done to you?

Yes, it hogs more national TV games than a team with its pedigree should, which makes it the Notre Dame of the NFL - but with a better winning percentage.

But did the Cowboys knock your team out of the playoffs? They knocked out your dad's team, maybe, or his dad's. But they didn't knock out yours.

Did they crush your team to grab a final playoff berth?

The Cowboys are never as good as their talent. When they're on, when they pile up points in those shiny silver and blue uniforms with that famous star, they look like world-beaters. Look out. They finally figured it out. Here they come.

Then they play one of those teams whose players blow frigid air out of their nostrils even when the game is in a dome. And the pretty stuff ceases to work. And it comes down to grit.

The name of the opponent changes - last season it was Philadelphia - but the result does not. When Dallas has to win, it loses.

So it's interesting that what could be Carolina's last big game of the season comes against this team on Monday night.

As desperate as the Panthers are, this is an opportunity. Nothing the Cowboys have done indicates they are as good as Philadelphia or Atlanta, the teams to which Carolina has lost.

If the Panthers have anything to offer, everybody will know. They'll play in one-game-old Cowboys Stadium, which is to stadiums what former Cowboy and Panther Nate Newton is to humans. More than 100,000 fans could attend. Others will tune in from home simply to see the new structure, which will not have been featured in a nationally televised game for eight days.

The Cowboys are a 9-point favorite - even the betting line is bigger in Texas. Hey, they beat Tampa Bay.

If the Panthers lose, their playoff prospects end and their housecleaning quietly begins. But if they win, they're 1-2 going into the bye week and will be favored in at least two of their next three games at home against Washington, at Tampa Bay and at home against Buffalo.

Win them all, and the Panthers are 4-2 before the schedule turns uncivilized again with games at Arizona and New Orleans.

But Texas has not been kind. The last time the Panthers won a game in the Lone Star State, the Cowboys were coached by Barry Switzer and the roster included Herschel Walker and Nate Newton. This was on a Monday night 12 seasons ago.

Carolina has lost its past five in Texas - in Dallas in 1998, '02 and '03, in Houston in '03 and in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in '04.

If Monday's game is elegant, full of pretty plays and lots of points, the Cowboys win and look good doing it.

The Panthers have to be grittier. Their offensive line has to give DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart room and Jake Delhomme time, and their defensive line has to beat the mammoth Dallas blockers.

I'll be shocked if Julius Peppers is a Panther next season. So this could be an audition. Unless an accommodation between owners and players is reached, there will be no salary cap in 2010. You imagine how good Peppers will look wearing a star? You imagine how many players Jerry Jones will overpay to entice fans to fill the stadium after the newness wears off?

Three of the teams that lost their first two games last season made the playoffs. To catch up, each had to win games it was not supposed to. The Panthers are not supposed to win Monday.

Despite all the fans cheering against them, Carolina has an edge. The Cowboys lost at home last week in their stadium's grand opening and losing at home again should humiliate them.

So they might then feel as if they have to win.