The Dallas Cowboys are synonymous with Thanksgiving Day football, having frequented America’s living rooms on the hallowed holiday nearly every November since 1966.
In 2015, nearly a half-century into the tradition and 20 years after Carolina’s inaugural season, the Panthers were invited to the big kids’ table for the first time.
They came in undefeated. Still, they came in hungry.
“We go out, week in and week out, and we compete hard as a team,” linebacker Thomas Davis said after the Panthers added another chapter to a record-setting season by improving to 11-0. “That’s the reason we are where we are.”
The Panthers’ home for the holidays was Arlington, Texas, the Dallas suburb that houses the monstrous marvel that is AT&T Stadium. The Panthers made themselves at home, their fans taking over the lower reaches of the stands in the waning minutes of a 33-14 demolition of Dallas.
“It was big for us to feel the support,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “The Cowboys always have a pretty good fan base, but to see the Carolina blue and black reign supreme at the end of game meant a lot.”
The Panthers reigned supreme for the large majority of the 2015 season (reaching Super Bowl 50 after a 15-1 season) and had fun doing it, even if most everyone else was a little late to the party. That game marked the return of Tony Romo – 6-2 as a starter in Thanksgiving games – to the Cowboys lineup after a seven-game absence caused by a broken collarbone. Dallas started the season 2-1 with him, then went 1-6 without him to enter the Carolina game at 3-7.
Yet the Panthers were slight underdogs in Vegas. They responded in kind, picking off Romo three times before halftime. In the second half, Romo reinjured his shoulder on a sack by Davis. He wouldn’t play the rest of the season and actually would play just one more series in his career before retiring.
“We stepped up to the challenge,” Davis said. “All week long, we heard how good their offensive line was. And how much Tony was going to come in and carve us up. We heard all that stuff.
“We felt disrespected and we went out there and played like we were capable of playing today. We set the tone early in this game.”
Early in the game, sacks would have been a welcome alternate for Romo compared to what actually happened as Carolina’s defense didn’t simply set the tone; it set the agenda.
On the third snap of the game, safety Kurt Coleman snagged his fifth interception of the season and weaved his way 36 yards for his first career touchdown. Linebacker Luke Kuechly scored his first touchdown later in the half, breaking on a Romo pass and steaming 32 yards untouched down the left sideline to extend the lead to 20-3.
On Romo’s subsequent snap, Kuechly became the first NFL player since 1997 to pick off passes on consecutive plays when on a pass to tight end Jason Witten deep down the seam. Kuechly was right there and made a difficult catch, returning this one 17 yards to the Dallas 29 to a set up a field goal on the final play of the half for a 23-3 lead.
“He has the smile, the charisma, the lawyer look,” Newton said of Kuechly. “But he has like a demolition mentality. That’s Luke. We all love him. I wouldn’t want him any other way.”
From there, it felt like a Carolina coronation, a moment on one of the NFL’s biggest stages where football fans at large collectively realized that this Panthers team was one to be reckoned with. That this Panthers team that feasted on Thanksgiving had what it took to play on the NFL’s unofficial national holiday that is Super Bowl Sunday.
“We've got a lot to be thankful for,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “It's an awesome feeling."
View photos from the 2015 season when Carolina went 15-1 and won the NFC Championship.