Contenders win all the winnable games that are on the schedule, and the Dallas Cowboys made sure to remind the NFL and themselves that there's a huge difference between them and the Carolina Panthers. Dallas won 33-10 Sunday in a game that shouldn't ever have been as close as it was so late in the third quarter.
The Panthers never really appeared to pose a real threat to Dallas, but a 17-play third-quarter drive that ended in a touchdown pulled Carolina to within a single possession at 17-10. That, apparently, was enough to light a fire under Dallas; less than three minutes of game clock later, Cowboys running back Tony Pollard scored his first touchdown since Week 1 to extend the Dallas lead.
And then it turned ugly. On the very next play from scrimmage, cornerback DaRon Bland took advantage of rookie Panthers quarterback Bryce Young, snaring an interception and returning it for a touchdown. Young failed to notice Bland jumping into the passing lane ahead of wide receiver Jonathan Mingo, and 30 yards later, Bland had his NFL record-tying fourth pick 6 of the season.
Bland has six interceptions this season and 11 over the past two seasons, most in the NFL. His fourth pick 6 this season ties the Eagles' Eric Allen (1993), the Chiefs' Jim Kearney (1972) and the Oilers' Ken Houston (1971).
The touchdown put Dallas up by 20, effectively ending the game against a Carolina team that, other than that one touchdown drive, was unable to mount any kind of sustained offensive attack. The Cowboys swarmed Carolina's offensive line, sacking Young six times. Micah Parsons had 2.5 of those, and spent almost as much time in Carolina's backfield as Young himself.
Young finished with 123 yards through the air, completing 16 of 29 attempts with one touchdown, one interception and one lost fumble. The Cowboys' Dak Prescott wasn't exceptional — 189 yards, 25-of-38, two touchdowns — but he didn't need to be, not with the defense locking down Young and Bland turning a mistake into a touchdown.
Bland, a fifth-round draft pick in 2022 out of Fresno State, has stepped up in the absence of cornerback Trevon Diggs, who was lost for the season after two games due to a torn ACL.
Bland has seven games left to set the pick-6 NFL record, a feat more impressive than even the most fervent Cowboys fans could have expected.
Dallas now has to prove it can win against the blue-chip teams on its schedule. After a divisional game against the Commanders on Thanksgiving Day, Dallas will face Seattle, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Miami and Detroit in succession. That five-game stretch to close out 2023 will define the quality of this Cowboys team in a way that a victory over Carolina won't.