Then Terrell Owens sprained his left ankle. The offense stalled and the concern about Owens’ overshadowed Dallas’ 20-13 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night.
While Dallas (13-2) moved a step closer to clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs behind a solid defense and an improved running game, the Cowboys were dealing with another injury to a key offensive player.
Last week it was Romo, who bruised his right thumb and was ineffective in a loss to Philadelphia. Now it’s Owens, who left in the second quarter after his left leg got caught underneath him after a catch. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called it a high ankle sprain.
“I’m a little sore and in a little pain,” Owens said. “I’ve been through this before. God is good. It definitely could have been worse. I will have an MRI done (Sunday) and we’ll go day to day.”
The Cowboys made it 14-0 a play after Owens left, but failed to score another touchdown and were greeted with Owens wearing a boot on his left foot after the game.
Romo threw for 257 yards and a touchdown, but wasn’t as effective without his top target.
“Obviously he’s an explosive player who’s going to obviously be missed if he’s not back,” Romo said. “I haven’t heard anything. I don’t know if he’s coming back next week or what.”
After the Panthers (6-9) cut it to 20-13 on John Kasay’s 25-yard field goal with 3:01 left, the Panthers decided not to try an onside kick.
The Cowboys then put it away on Marion Barber’s 11-yard run for a first down with 1:45 left.
Barber rushed for 110 yards on 22 carries to help Dallas match the 1992 team for the most victories in franchise history.
But despite improving to 7-0 on the road, the Cowboys struggled to put away the Panthers, who started undrafted rookie Matt Moore for a second straight week.
Moore, who like Romo went undrafted and spent training camp with the Cowboys, threw for 182 yards. He threw his first NFL touchdown pass to Steve Smith in the second quarter, and connected with Smith on a 57-yard pass play that led to Kasay’s final field goal.
But Moore was intercepted once and sacked five times, twice by DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys’ defense was strong despite the absence of Roy Williams, who was serving a one-game suspension for an illegal “horse-collar” tackle.
“I think there were some good things and there’s obviously stuff to work on,” Moore said. “That interception in the second half was just a bad read.”
Smith caught nine passes for 137 yards, but the Panthers managed only 67 yards rushing and were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
After the game, Carolina coach John Fox refused to discuss an NFL Network report that owner Jerry Richardson said Fox and general manager Marty Hurney would return next year despite their second straight non-winning season.
“I won’t address that or any conversations until the season is over,” Fox said.
While the Panthers season will end next week, the Cowboys will clinch home-field throughout the playoffs if Green Bay loses at Chicago on Sunday.
But there are concerns about when Owens will be able to play again.
“The first round bye helps,” Owens said. “I won’t rush anything.”
Owens, who finished with five catches for 48 yards, had his team-record 15th touchdown catch of the season in the first quarter. After grabbing a sideline hitch pass, Owens barreled over cornerback Richard Marshall for a 10-yard score and a 7-0 lead.
Owens’ fifth catch midway through the second quarter was his last. After Romo’s 4-yard pass near the goal line, Owens went down awkwardly after he was tackled by Jon Beason.
Agitated, Owens limped to the sideline, then later walked to the locker room. He was seen later seen walking outside the locker room without his left shoe, and he remained in the locker room for the rest of the game.
Cowboys took a 14-0 lead the play after Owens went down on Barber’s 5-yard run, but struggled to score again despite a big possession advantage.
“We still ran all the same plays we run when he’s in there,” said receiver Patrick Crayton, who starts opposite Owens. “I think once 81 was out, once TO was out, they started playing more man. That’s fine. That’s how we like it. We hate playing against zone. I think zone should be outlawed by the NFL.”
Romo, shaking off the distractions from last week’s poor play and the publicity over girlfriend Jessica Simpson’s appearance, completed 28 of 42 passes and had one interception.
There was no sign of Simpson, although a trio of portly male fans wore blond wigs and a handful of others wore Simpson masks.
But Romo quickly found a rhythm, with the assist from a ground game that had disappeared of late.
The Cowboys rushed only 15 times for 53 yards against the Eagles, but Dallas targeted Carolina’s defensive line, which was without Julius Peppers (knee), by rushing for 148 yards.
The Panthers cut it to 14-7 on Moore’s first touchdown pass of his career, an 11-yard pass to Steve Smith, his first TD catch since Week 6.
Trailing 17-7 early in the third quarter, the Panthers drove to the Dallas 1. Then center Justin Hartwig sprained his right knee. He was replaced by rookie Ryan Kalil, and Moore was sacked on the next two plays. Kasay kicked a 37-yard field goal to make it 17-10.
Dallas improved to 7-1 against Carolina in the regular season. Carolina is 2-0 against Dallas in the playoffs. … Peppers had his streak of 78 straight games played snapped, missing a game for the first time since a four-game suspension to end the 2002 season for violating the NFL’s banned substance policy …. Smith’s second-quarter TD catch was his team-record 45th of his career.