Panthers-Cowboys Preview

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The return of Tony Romo has injected life into the Dallas Cowboys and taken some attention off teammate Greg Hardy heading into the defensive end's Thanksgiving Day reunion with his former team.

Whether the Cowboys are good enough to get the best of Cam Newton or handle a daunting Carolina Panthers defense remains to be seen.

Looking to build on their first win in two months, the Cowboys try to continue their series dominance by handing the visiting Panthers their first defeat Thursday.

After missing seven games with a broken collarbone, Romo went 18 of 28 for 227 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions to help Dallas (3-7) snap a seven-game slide with Sunday's 24-14 win at Miami. Though Romo wasn't spectacular against the underachieving Dolphins, his presence has revived a team whose season was going nowhere fast.

''We're excited to have him back,'' tight end Jason Witten said. ''He brings great energy. He's the leader of our team.''

The Cowboys are undefeated this season with the 35-year-old Romo, who showed the poise and confidence that was missing from either Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel. Dallas is still tied for the worst record in the NFC, but is two games back of the first-place New York Giants in the East.

''I just feel like we had one of our best players back in Romo,'' safety Barry Church said "That had a heck of a lot of difference."

Dallas totaled 386 yards Sunday after averaging 322 over the previous seven games, and Darren McFadden ran for 129 of the Cowboys' 166. However, it came against a Miami unit that ranks near the bottom of the league in total defense.

''It feels good. At the same time we have to work,'' said receiver Dez Bryant, who caught his 50th touchdown pass from Romo to break the franchise mark for a tandem set by Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.

''Nobody is going to be jumping for joy around here.''

Because the challenge gets significantly tougher against Carolina (10-0), one of the NFL two unbeaten teams. Though the Panthers have dropped their last nine regular-season meetings with the Cowboys, including four straight at Dallas, they haven't met since 2012.

Dealing with back issues on a short week last season, Romo threw two INTs and was sacked four times in a 33-10 Thanksgiving loss to Philadelphia.

"He's a lot further away from the injury, the back injury, so we do think he's going to be more able to handle the consecutive days in the short week," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.

Perhaps, but Romo is facing a Panthers unit that ranks fourth in total defense (322.8 yards per game), is tied for fifth in scoring defense (19.1 points per game), tied for third in sacks (31) and first in takeaways (25). In Sunday's 44-16 rout of Washington, Carolina forced five turnovers that led to 27 points, recorded five sacks and set a franchise record by yielding 14 rushing yards on 12 carries.

The Panthers should get more of a boost with defensive end Charles Johnson eligible to return after missing the last eight weeks while on short-term injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Johnson, who has one sack in three games, averaged 10 1/2 over the previous five seasons.

''C.J. is one of the most fierce, respected all-down lineman in this league,'' teammate Kony Ealy said. ''When he comes back he is going to open up even more for us.''

The Panthers possess a formidable defense even without Hardy, who blossomed into one of the NFL's top pass rushers while spending his first five seasons in Carolina. He was placed on the Commissioner's exempt list for his arrest on domestic violence charges and played only one game last season for the Panthers, who opted not to re-sign him. Hardy inked a one-year deal with Dallas in March, and has recorded a team-leading 4 1/5 sacks in six contests after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

He's naturally downplaying the personal significance of this contest.

"It's just a nameless, faceless opponent," Hardy said. "On to the next game.

"I just keep it that way. We've got a great group of guys in here. We're just focused on the next game. It's the most important game on the schedule."

Hardy and a Dallas defense that's held three of its last four opponents to 14 or fewer points, will try to cool off Newton during what could be an MVP season.

Though the fifth-year quarterback is completing a career-low 56.9 percent of his passes, he's thrown 20 TDs and ran for six while posting a personal-best 90.1 passer rating. He hasn't thrown an interception in the last two games and Sunday tossed five TDs to help Carolina extend its regular-season winning streak to 14 games.

''What more can you say - the guy's been playing at a very elite level right now,'' said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who has caught half of his six TD passes in the last four games. ''Playing the quarterback position, there's no other quarterback that's asked to do what he has to do, both run and pass. He's playing as good a ball as there is in the league right now.''

In Newton's only game against Dallas, he went 21 of 37 for 233 yards with an INT and ran for 64 in the 19-14 loss on Oct. 21. 2012.

Carolina will be without backup defensive end Wes Horton, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.