CHARLOTTE — The Panthers were able to bask in the kind of relative anonymity which coaches love for the first few weeks of the season.
But now, thanks to their 3-0 start and this week's opponent, a lot more eyes are on them.
Playing the Cowboys always comes with a little more attention, and playing them on one of the grandest stages in the league adds to it.
It doesn't help that the Panthers lost their best offensive player and one of their top young defenders last week to injury, so having a few extra days to put the pieces together can only help.
The Panthers do have a significant rest advantage, with a 10-day break since their last game the Thursday before last in Houston. The Cowboys played Monday night, and they're 0-4 in games the following week when the opponent played the previous Thursday. Whether that makes a difference considering the Panthers' injury issues remains to be seen. So here are five things to watch entering Sunday's game:
All week, the Panthers have tried to make sure that running back Chuba Hubbard isn't trying to do too much, or to be someone he isn't.
There's really no replacing running back Christian McCaffrey (who will be out for a few weeks with a hamstring strain), so they simply want Hubbard to be the best version of himself.
"Chuba, when he makes a cut, he's very good, and when he's decisive, he's really good," veteran left tackle Cameron Erving said. "Like anyone in this league, if you think too much, you don't react and you don't play as fast and as well as you'd like to.
"The only thing I've told Chuba this week is just be yourself. Don't go out here and try to be Christian, just go out here and try to be you. Show people why they drafted you. Continue to do the things you've done your entire career. And everything else will fall in place. Once he gets into a rhythm, the sky's the limit."
The Panthers liked what they saw from Hubbard in the second half of last week's win at Houston, when he ran well after McCaffrey's injury. Prior to that, he only got a few carries here and there, and never much of a chance to get into a flow.
He also struggled to keep his feet at times.
"I've wanted to see him really play with his feet underneath him. He's had a lot of times where he's slipped and fallen cutting off his inside foot," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "I think once he got into a rhythm in the last game, you saw that sort of dissipate and you saw him run with power and speed."
Hubbard said he wasn't sure if some of those slips were because of footwear or nerves, but he knows that regular work's not going to be a problem now.
"It may have been a little shoe thing. They got me right on that. Maybe a little bit of jitters, too," Hubbard admitted. "As the game went on, I felt like I got my feet better under me."
He said a number of people had approached him this week with the message that he doesn't have to try to replace McCaffrey, such that anyone can.
TAKE IT TO THE PAINT
The Panthers know that pressuring Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is a complicated task, considering how quickly he gets the ball out.
But Panthers defensive end Brian Burns pointed out that it's not just edge-rushing, but coming up the middle that's important since Prescott has the ability to step up in the pocket to buy time.
"He does get the ball out very fast. He does get rid of the ball. But there are also times where he tries to hold it and extend (plays)," Burns said. "We have to take advantage of those opportunities. It does get frustrating and aggravating when you can't get to the quarterback. But as long as you get in his passing window, or put people in front of him, get in the paint, try to get him off his spot. That's the main thing we can do to disrupt him."
Prescott is mobile, and can buy time to look downfield by running. But he's not as much of a threat as a runner, so keeping him in the pocket will help.
EASING HIM IN
Cornerback CJ Henderson turned 23 this week, and for a present, the Panthers are allowing him to focus on the future.
Henderson might play Sunday against the Cowboys, but because the recent trade acquisition has had three days of practice, they're not going to overburden him at first.
This week, they'll lean on veterans A.J. Bouye and Rashaan Melvin to supplement Donte Jackson at cornerback, and they're prepared to use rookie Keith Taylor Jr. and special teamer Stantley Thomas-Oliver III as well.
Henderson will get his chance, but until they have a chance to get him familiar with their system, they're not going to put him in a position to fail.
TAKE CARE OF IT
The Cowboys' defense is not, by technical definition, what you'd call good. They rank 26th in the league in total defense.
But they lead the league in creating turnovers (8), so ball security will be a huge issue for the Panthers this week.
That makes things more complicated for quarterback Sam Darnold, especially since he doesn't have McCaffrey to rely on.
ON A ROLL
In case you haven't noticed, the Panthers defense is playing extremely well at the moment.
They lead the league in most categories, but slipped to second in scoring defense behind the Broncos last week.
The Panthers and Broncos are the only teams in the league to allow fewer than 15 points in each game, and also score 19 or more in each game.
The only other time a team has pulled off that exacta in the first four games of the year was in 2007, when the Patriots did it.
That team went undefeated in the regular season, but lost in Super Bowl XLII.
BONUS GAME DAY RECIPE
Make Harris Teeter your choice for pre and post game tailgate celebrations! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Tyson – Buffalo Chicken Dip