Starting July 1, Panthers.com will reflect on each of Carolina's first 24 years as the franchise prepares to celebrate its 25th season in 2019. We will chronicle the games, players and moments that defined Panthers football from its NFL-record start as an expansion franchise to Super Bowl runs in 2003 and 2015 and everything in between. Click here to visit the hub for 25th season content, including stories, highlights and photo albums.
The Dallas Cowboys, who visited Ericsson Stadium for an NFC Divisional Playoff against the Carolina Panthers on January 5, 1997, were NFL royalty.
The upstart Panthers, although NFC West champions with a 12-4 record during the 1996 regular season, were in only their second season of existence.
The Cowboys were reigning Super Bowl champions with a quartet of proven superstars in quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, wide receiver Michael Irvin and cornerback Deion Sanders.
By comparison, the Panthers were a bunch of NFL nobodies.
The quarterback was Kerry Collins, in only his second year after being the fifth overall selection in the 1995 draft. He usually handed the ball off to running back Anthony Johnson, a career backup who gained 1,120 yards after Tshimanga Biakabutuka, the team's 1996 first-round draft choice, suffered a season-ending injury.
When Collins did throw it, he usually targeted tight end Wesley Walls, who led the team with 61 catches for 713 yards and 10 touchdowns. The starting wide receivers, Mark Carrier and Willie Green, were retreads by NFL standards.
So despite earning home-field advantage by virtue of their surprising division title, the Panthers were considered underdogs when the Cowboys sauntered into Charlotte with a certain amount of swagger. Dallas had just dismantled the Minnesota Vikings, 40-15, in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, while Carolina sat idle with a bye.
The Panthers, however, were unfazed.
"This is exactly the type of game that you wait all your life to play," Panthers linebacker Carlton Bailey declared. "And I can't wait to play it."
Fans felt the same way about watching it. The 7,300 single-game tickets available to those who did not have Permanent Seat License season tickets sold out in four minutes.
Adding spice to the game was Dallas head coach Barry Switzer commenting to ESPN that the Cowboys "had never traveled this far south" for a playoff game. The media wondered if Switzer knew where Charlotte was actually located, as it is actually northeast of Dallas. Several Panthers seized on the comment as a sign of disrespect, using it for additional motivation - as if any was needed.
Early in the game, Lamar Lathon - one-half of the "Salt and Pepper" linebacker duo along with Kevin Greene - slammed Irvin to the ground as he attempted to streak downfield with a catch from Aikman. Irvin's right shoulder was fractured, and he was out of the game.
"I just put a good lick on him," Lathon said. "I never meant to hurt anybody."
But with Irvin out of the game, Aikman's favorite target was gone.
Collins still had his, and he soon found Walls for a 1-yard touchdown pass that gave the Panthers a 7-3 lead midway through the first quarter. Collins followed that with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Green, who made a diving catch in the end zone to make it 14-3.
The Cowboys weren't done, of course. Aikman threw a short touchdown to fullback Daryl Johnston, and then the Panthers delivered the gift of a safety when usually reliable long-snapper Mark Rodenhauser snapped the ball over the head of punter Rohn Stark, who alertly batted the ball out of the end zone to minimize the damage.
That cut Carolina's lead to three points just three minutes before halftime. But the Panthers were able to extend it to 17-11 when John Kasay tacked on a 24-yard field goal on the last play of the half, set up by safety Chad Cota's 49-yard interception return to the Dallas 27-yard line.
In the third quarter, the teams traded field goals. Then Kasay converted another, putting the Panthers ahead 23-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Still, these were the Cowboys. Aikman had orchestrated many comebacks in his career. The lead did not seem safe.
But there also was a sense of desperation that appeared to be seeping in on the Dallas sideline. With Irvin out, Switzer decided to use the speedy Sanders at wide receiver as well as on defense. And he called for a reverse to Sanders.
It looked like a smart ploy at first, as Sanders took the ball and raced up the field unimpeded for 15 yards. But on his final step of what would be a 16-yard gain, Sanders was met head-on by a contingent of four Panthers: cornerback Tyrone Poole, nose tackle Greg Kragen, linebacker Sam Mills and Bailey.
They collectively hammered Sanders to the turf.
His tacklers immediately popped up, excitedly exchanging high fives and slaps on the backs, helmets and shoulder pads. Sanders stayed down, writhing in pain. Doctors later determined that the impact broke a small bone below Sanders' left eye. Now he was out of the game, too.
Although the Cowboys drew to within 23-17 on a field goal by kicker Chris Boniol, Aikman was missing his most dynamic receiver in Irvin, and the Dallas defense was without Sanders, who also was a dangerous kick returner.
The Panthers, circling like sharks now, delivered some brutal hits on Aikman over the final minutes and eventually secured a 26-17 win that moved them to the NFC Championship in only their second season. It was a remarkable win, one that will forever rank as one of the most memorable in franchise history.
On television that day, broadcaster John Madden could not believe what he had just witnessed.
"Who would have thought that Dallas would lose in this round and that the winner would be the Carolina Panthers?" he said on the air.
The Panthers did. And so did their fans.
Photos from Carolina's 1996 season where the Panthers won the NFC West division and advanced to the NFC Championship game.