Minus McCaffrey, perfect Panthers visit Cowboys and surging Elliott

DALLAS — In trying to prove they aren’t just the “Carolina Christian McCaffreys,” the Panthers will take on another running back with an All-Pro pedigree in Ezekiel Elliott and the surging ground game of the Dallas Cowboys.

McCaffrey won’t play because of a strained hamstring when Carolina makes a second consecutive appearance in Texas on Sunday.

The Panthers (3-0) will have to figure on needing plenty of points even with the NFL’s No. 1 defense because of the way quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliott and company are playing for the league’s fifth-best offense.

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“We’re not called the Carolina Christian McCaffreys,” tackle Cameron Erving, who played for the Cowboys last year, said after the star back was injured in the first quarter of last week’s 24-9 victory at Houston. “Everybody understands that we have to step up and make plays when he’s not in there. At receiver, at tight end, at quarterback.”

The Cowboys (2-1) are coming off their best back-to-back weeks in the run game since 2019, with Elliott getting a season-high 95 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-21 win over Philadelphia on Monday.

Dallas is averaging 179 yards on the ground in two victories since Prescott threw for 403 yards and the Cowboys ran for just 60 in a 31-29 loss to defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in the opener.

The Cowboys didn’t even try to establish the run against last year’s top rushing defense. They’re likely to give it a shot against the defense leading the NFL in all three yardage categories — total, rushing and passing — but they probably won’t force it.

“It seems like each week we’ve had a little bit different of a game plan,” said Elliott, a 2016 All-Pro and two-time rushing champ. “I think we’ve showed that we can beat you through the air, we can beat you through the run, just depending on what you give us.”

With the 2019 All-Pro McCaffrey out, rookie fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard should make his first career start not far from his college home of Oklahoma State. Royce Freeman is likely to get some carries as well.

McCaffrey’s 13-game absence last season because of injuries played a role in a third straight losing season for the Panthers in Matt Rhule’s rookie year as coach.

Undefeated this far into the season for the first time since going to the Super Bowl six years ago, Carolina is ready to show it can win games without the former Stanford star.

“Christian doesn’t want it to be just about him, but about everybody else,” Rhule said. “He’s the ultimate leader. We’ll miss him on the field, but we’ll certainly miss him off the field.’’

DARNOLD’S HISTORY

Sam Darnold is off to a solid start with his new club. One of the quarterback’s few fond memories from three difficult years in New York was a 24-22 upset of Prescott and the Cowboys when the Jets were 0-5 in 2019, his second year. Darnold had 338 yards passing, the second most of his career, and two touchdowns.

On the flip side, Darnold is returning to the site of his final college game, when he lost two fumbles and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in Southern California’s 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

Darnold skipped his final two college seasons and was the third overall pick in the draft by the Jets four months later — also at AT&T Stadium.

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“When he played us, he had a good game,” Dallas cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “He’s dangerous. He has the weapons out there to go get it done. Those guys are talented and not to be slept on.”

SACK ATTACK

The Panthers have 14 sacks through three games in large part because of Haason Reddick and Brian Burns. They have combined for 7½ sacks as defensive coordinator Phil Snow has dialed up some elaborate blitz schemes against rookies QBs Zach Wilson and Davis Mills and veteran Jameis Winston.

It’s also helped that the Panthers have outscored opponents 40-6 in the first half this season. Facing Prescott, who is off to a great start coming off the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season in Week 5, presents an entirely different challenge.

WHAT DAY IS IT?

Counting the exhibitions, the Cowboys are about to be eight games into the season without playing on the same day from the previous week. It was Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday in the preseason, then Thursday-Sunday-Monday-Sunday to start the regular season. The quirkiness finally ends with a Sunday game against the New York Giants next week.

Coach Mike McCarthy noticed it — and mentioned it — long before the preseason ended. “We’ve spent a lot of time on scheduling,” he quipped this week.

[Panthers, with key players sidelined due to injuries, defeat Texans, 24-9]

HENDERSON WATCH

The Panthers would like to see the debut of cornerback C.J. Henderson after this week’s trade of tight end Dan Arnold and a third-round pick to Jacksonville for the ninth overall choice in the 2020 draft. The move came after cornerback Jaycee Horn, the No. 8 pick this year, broke his right foot against the Texans.

Rhule said the club wouldn’t rush Henderson into action after he missed his final game with the Jaguars because of a groin injury. “Any chance you have to get a top-15 draft pick from the year before, it’s very unique,” Rhule said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Perfect Panthers visit Cowboys in 2nd straight trip to Texas

CAROLINA (3-0) at DALLAS (2-1)

Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, Fox

OPENING LINE: Cowboys by 5

AGAINST THE SPREAD: Panthers 3-0, Cowboys 3-0.

SERIES RECORD: Cowboys lead 9-5.

LAST MEETING: Panthers beat Cowboys 16-8, Sept. 9, 2018, at Carolina.

LAST WEEK: Panthers beat Texans 24-9; Cowboys beat Eagles 41-21.

PANTHERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (10), RUSH (T-14), PASS (8), SCORING (16).

PANTHERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (1), RUSH (1), PASS (1), SCORING (2).

COWBOYS OFFENSE: OVERALL (5), RUSH (4), PASS (10), SCORING (T-6).

COWBOYS DEFENSE: OVERALL (T-26), RUSH (6), PASS (31), SCORING (13).

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Panthers plus-1; Cowboys plus-5.

PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Sam Darnold has been solid, completing 68% of his passes for 888 yards with six total touchdowns (three rushing, three passing) and one interception. But things might get a little tougher against Dallas without RB Christian McCaffrey (hamstring) in the backfield, making Carolina more one-dimensional on offense.

COWBOYS PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Ezekiel Elliott is coming off his best game of the season (95 yards, two touchdowns) as the Cowboys have had a dramatic shift in production in two games since the opener. Dallas had 391 yards passing and 60 rushing in a loss to Tampa Bay. In victories over Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Cowboys averaged 221 yards passing and 179 on the ground.

KEY MATCHUP: Panthers pass rush vs. Cowboys RT Terence Steele. OLB Haason Reddick has 4½ of Carolina’s league-leading 14 sacks, and the Panthers have at least four in each of the three games. DE Brian Burns has six sacks in his last five games. Steele is an undrafted second-year player starting for the suspended La’el Collins. Steele played all 16 games last year with Collins out because of hip surgery, and is getting solid reviews this year.

KEY INJURIES: Panthers CB Jaycee Horn (foot) and S Juston Burris (groin) got hurt along with McCaffrey against the Texans and won’t play. DE Yetur Gross-Matos (ankle) is also expected to be out. ... Carolina is hoping newly acquired CB C.J. Henderson will be ready, but he’s dealing with a groin injury and missed the Jaguars’ Week 3 game against Arizona. ... Dallas expects to be without S Donovan Wilson (groin) for a third consecutive game. It’s likely to be the second game in a row without DE Dorance Armstrong (ankle) and DT Carlos Watkins (knee). ... This will be the third game on injured reserve for WR Michael Gallup (calf).

SERIES NOTES: Carolina’s second consecutive trip to Texas after beating Houston is a return to AT&T Stadium for the first time since 2015, when the Panthers enjoyed a 33-14 Thanksgiving rout of the Cowboys on the way to a 14-0 start. Carolina lost to Denver in the Super Bowl that season. The Panthers have won the past two meetings after a five-game Dallas winning streak that followed the second of two playoff victories for Carolina against the Cowboys.

STATS AND STUFF: Rookie Chuba Hubbard will start in place of McCaffrey, but Royce Freeman will also see action. Hubbard ran for 52 yards on 11 carries after McCaffrey’s injury late in the first quarter in Houston. Freeman had five carries for 17 yards. ... The Panthers have outscored opponents 40-6 in the opening half and outgained them 734 to 255. ... WR DJ Moore led the Panthers with eight catches for 126 yards last week. ... Rookie Tommy Tremble will take over as Carolina’s primary tight end after Dan Arnold went to Jacksonville in the Henderson trade. ... Carolina’s defense leads the NFL in all three yardage categories (overall, rush, pass) and is second in points allowed. ... Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has completed an NFL-best 77.5% of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions in his return from the ankle injury that sidelined him after Week 5 last year. ... RB Tony Pollard has consecutive games of at least 60 yards rushing for the first time in his three-year career. ... WR Amari Cooper has six catches for 50 yards in two games since catching 13 passes (a career high) for 139 yards in the opener. ... CB Trevon Diggs in the only player in the NFL with at least one interception in each of the first three games. He and Cincinnati’s Logan Wilson entered the week as the only players with three picks. ... The Cowboys lead the NFL with eight takeaways and are tied for first with New Orleans at plus-5 in turnover differential. ... The Cowboys have lost eight of their past nine games the week after playing on Monday night. ... There have been 13 instances of teams getting at least 13 first downs in the first quarter since the 1970 merger. The Cowboys have two of them in the past two weeks (13 against the Chargers, 14 against the Eagles).