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.
Early in the game, Lamar Lathon 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.
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.
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.
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 now without Sanders, who had been injured on a reverse after Switzer decided to put him on offense for a series.
The Panthers, circling like sharks now, delivered some brutal hits on Aikman over the final minutes and eventually secured a 26-17 win after a Sam Mills interception deep in Dallas territory clinched it.
The win put the Panthers in the NFC Championship in just the second season of the franchise. It also ended an era of the Dallas Cowboys, who after winning three Super Bowls in the 90's, wouldn't win another playoff game until 2009.
View photos from Carolina's thrilling home win over the defending champion Cowboys in the 1996 divisional round of the playoffs.