CHARLOTTE – Based on the NFL average of 23 points per game, the Panthers' defense played well enough for Carolina to come away with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
"We feel like we played OK on defense, but at the end of the day if they don't score, we win," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said following Sunday's 19-14 loss. "We didn't play well enough."
Last year, the Panthers held opponents to less than 20 points just five times in 16 games, but they went 5-0 in those games. Through six games this season, Carolina already has limited three opponents to less than 20 points, but the Panthers are 0-3 in those games.
"Regardless of what the stats say or what you think we did, if we didn't win, we didn't play well enough," linebacker James Anderson said. "I feel like we're taking steps in a positive direction, but we're not there yet. We've still got to make some corrections and be able to take advantage of opportunities."
Anderson let an opportunity slip through his hands – quite literally – when he couldn't haul in an interception at Dallas' 25-yard line on the second play of the fourth quarter. The play, however, got the ball back for the offense, which marched 75 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 11:38 to play.
The defense, even with top players Jon Beason at linebacker and Chris Gamble at cornerback out with injuries, set the table for the offense throughout, holding Dallas to 312 yards.
Last week, the Cowboys gashed the Baltimore Ravens for 227 rushing yards. Sunday, they rushed for 85.
"We did a good job of stopping the run," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "You look at the yards they were able to put up against Baltimore last week. We knew it was going to be a challenge for us, but we did a good job of handling it."
Carolina's linebackers were active for a second straight game without Beason, accounting for more than 55 percent of the team's tackles. Rookie Luke Kuechly again started in the middle and led the way with 15 tackles, Anderson added 12 and Davis had 10.
Kuechly and Davis combined on a key takeaway late in the first half. The Cowboys were leading 3-0 and driving when Davis knocked the ball away from wide receiver Miles Austin near the red zone. Kuechly recovered it, and the offense responded with a touchdown drive that gave the Panthers a 7-3 lead at halftime.
The Panthers had a top-10 offense but a bottom-10 defense last season, so a common school of thought was that they'd win more games if the defense showed some semblance of improvement.
The defense has improved, but the win total has not.
"This team has to figure out a way to finish games," Davis said. "We do too good of a job fighting to be in the game and we work too hard throughout the week for us to not come out and finish these games.
"It's right there for us. It's just all about finishing. That's what we've got to do."