ARLINGTON, Texas – An undefeated team like the Carolina Panthers could have strolled into the Cowboys' palace on Thanksgiving full and satisfied.
But Carolina came in hungry.
That hunger fueled a dominating performance against a 3-7 Cowboys team that was favored in some circles but didn't seem to stand a chance from the get-go in the Panthers' 33-14 triumph at AT&T Stadium.
The victory, in the first Thanksgiving game in franchise history, improved Carolina to 11-0 on the season.
"We stepped up to the challenge," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "All week long we heard about how good their offensive line was and how Tony (Romo) was going to come in and carve us up. We heard all that stuff.
"We felt disrespected, and we went out and played like we were capable of playing today. We set the tone early."
The defense didn't merely set the tone - it set the agenda, picking off Romo three times in the first half to key a 23-3 halftime lead.
Safety Kurt Coleman said he believed the Panthers entered the game ready to compete at a "high, high level," and he fulfilled that prophecy early. On the third snap of the game, Coleman snagged his team-best fifth interception and weaved his way 36 yards for his first career touchdown.
"We set the tempo from the get-go, even before my interception with the great coverage from J-No (Josh Norman vs. Dez Bryant). Then I was fortunate enough to get the interception and benefited from some great blocking down the field," Coleman said. "In high school I was a kick returner, punt returner, wide receiver. Looking back, there were a couple of times in previous games where I could have made different cuts. With this one, I said, 'Just make the cutback.'
"I did, and then I saw (tight end) Jason Witten close, and I made another cutback. I was able to continue to cut it back and get into the end zone."
Linebacker Luke Kuechly must have been taking notes because he scored his first touchdown later in the half. After Graham Gano's second of four field goals extended Carolina's lead to 13-3 with 3:27 before halftime, Kuechly broke on a pass intended for wide receiver Terrance Williams and steamed 32 yards untouched down the left sideline to extend the lead to 20-3.
"He (Romo) checked into something, and Thomas kind of looked at me and asked me if we wanted to check. He made a great check, everybody got on the same page, and I was able to step in there," Kuechly said. "Bene (Benwikere) laid a good block on someone, and I was able to scurry in there.
"Oh man, I haven't done that in a while."
Speaking of things that haven't been done in a while, Kuechly then became the first NFL player since 1997 to pick off passes on consecutive plays when Romo tried to hit Witten on a deep seam route. Kuechly was right there and made a difficult catch, returning this one 17 yards to the Dallas 29 to set up Gano for a 25-yard field goal on the final play of the half for a 23-3 lead.
In the second half, the offense controlled the clock with running back Jonathan Stewart and quarterback Cam Newton propelling the Panthers to a 22nd consecutive game with 100-plus rushing yards.
Carolina got the first offensive touchdown for either team with 18 seconds left in the third quarter. Two clutch catches in third-and-long situations by wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery sandwiched around a Cowboys penalty on a Gano field goal set up Newton for a 4-yard touchdown run. The 80-yard march took 7:29 off to clock and extended the lead to 30-6.
"We've still got to find ways to finish in the red zone," Newton said, "but a performance like that by the defense makes everybody's job easier."
On Dallas' next possession, Romo - who returned to action last week after missing seven games with a broken collarbone – went down with a similar injury on a sack by Davis and did not return.
The way the Panthers were playing, there's little doubt the outcome would have been similar with Romo.
"I'm excited about where we are. The guys have done a great job," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I'm proud of the guys in that locker room. They've stayed on the message and have focused on really, truly making it one game at a time."
And this was one game for the memory bank, a Thanksgiving triumph worth savoring.
"We've got a lot to be thankful for. I'm really thankful we're 11-0," Norman said. "It's an awesome feeling."
View game action photos from Carolina's 33-14 win over Dallas.