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Carolina Panthers

Five Things to Watch: Panthers at Cowboys

1. J-NO VS. DEZ: Cornerback Josh Norman has had this matchup circled for some time, and quite honestly, so have the rest of us.

Norman, who has frustrated every No. 1 wide receiver he's faced so far this season, will battle Cowboys superstar Dez Bryant.

"It will be a great matchup, and I know a lot of people want to see it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It should be fun. Dez is a heck of a football player, and Josh is a very good player in his own right."

A supremely confident player never afraid to express himself, Norman said he can't wait for the challenge.

"I'm excited for the matchup to test my abilities," Norman said. "I'm definitely honored to accept that challenge, and I'm definitely looking forward to it. I circled it ever since the beginning of the year. It's going to be a fiery night, and I'm going to enjoy every second of it."

2. HARDY FACES FORMER TEAM: When game-planning for the Cowboys defense, the preparation begins with Greg Hardy – a player the Panthers are very familiar with.

The defensive end will play against his former team for the first time on Thursday. Hardy, a Pro Bowler with the Panthers in 2013, leads Dallas with 4.5 sacks.

"We have to be aware of him. We have to make sure we have a plan for him," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who spoke about preparing for Hardy much like he did when Carolina braced for J.J. Watt early in the year. "He plays with a lot of energy and he finishes. He gets a lot of plays not just because of his athletic ability but because he plays harder than they guy he's going against."

Said fullback Mike Tolbert: "He's obviously one of the best in the league. He just never stops. We played with him, so we know his motor. We know how intense he is going to be for this game."

Hardy has lined up at just about every D-line spot for the Cowboys. At times, he'll match up with left tackle Michael Oher, a former high school teammate and college teammate at Ole Miss.

3. WHO WINS THE RUN GAME? Carolina's success on the ground is well documented. Workhorse running back Jonathan Stewart and the Panthers have rushed for at least 100 yards in 21 consecutive games and rank fourth in the NFL with 139.9 yards per game.

But the Cowboys, despite some upheaval at the running back position this year, aren't far behind. They rank eighth in the league with 123.7 rushing yards per game, and running back Darren McFadden is coming off a 129-yard performance.

Dallas' offensive line is regarded as one of the best in the league, and they know a consistent run game will be required to support quarterback Tony Romo, who is making just his second start since coming back from broken collarbone.

Carolina's line has turned heads the season, and the group welcomes back road-grating guard Andrew Norwell after a two-game absence.

4. SIMILARLY EFFECTIVE TIGHT ENDS: Romo's most dangerous target may be Bryant, but he always seems to find tight end Jason Witten when he needs a critical play.

It's similar to the way quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen find ways to connect in big moments. Two of the league's most complete tight ends figure to play a big role in the outcome Thursday.

"(Witten's) got a lot of tricks, he's savvy, he's crafty at the top of his routes and then Romo puts it where he needs it," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "They are on the same page, kind of like Cam and Greg. They know what each other is thinking."

5. JOHNSON BACK IN THE MIX: Defensive end Charles Johnson's long wait is over. He's returning to action for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury in Week 3 that landed him on short-term injured reserve.

Johnson is expected to start opposite Jared Allen, but his snaps will be closely monitored as he shakes off the rust. Regardless of how much he plays, Johnson's presence will provide a boost for the defense.

"It's going to be a huge boost, knowing what kind of player he is and what he means to this defense," fellow team captain Thomas Davis said. "Even bigger than the play on the field is his leadership. It's going to be great to have him back."


Photos from Carolina's loss to Dallas.

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