Hope isn't lost for the Carolina Panthers.
Bouncing back strong from last week's miserable loss to New Orleans, the Panthers pounced on the ailing Dallas Cowboys, winning 23-13 Monday night in Texas Stadium to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
The victory improved Carolina's record to 7-7 and set up the most difficult of must-win situations Sunday at home against the 11-3 Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions, who have looked ready to win the title again in recent weeks.
Even if the Panthers find a way to upset the Packers and then beat St. Louis to close the season, they probably need the Detroit Lions (7-7) and Washington Redskins (7-6-1) to lose once each to earn a wild-card playoff berth.
Monday's win over Dallas (6-8) came in a game that could have been titled the Injury Bowl. Both teams were hurting coming in and their injury lists grew as the game progressed.
The Cowboys, missing cornerback Deion Sanders (cracked ribs), lost running back Emmitt Smith with a re-injured shoulder in the first three minutes, then lost tight end Eric Bjornson with a broken fibula.
The Panthers built a 20-6 lead behind the running of Fred Lane (138 yards on 34 carries) and the passing of quarterback Kerry Collins (two touchdown passes and no interceptions). However, they had to play parts of the fourth quarter without both players.
Lane sustained a bruised shoulder and Collins a twisted ankle.
Then came one of the more chilling sights of the season: With 3:51 left in the game, cornerback Eric Davis tackled Dallas running back Sherman Williams head-first. Davis was driven off the field on a cart, his head immobilized and his body on a stretcher. He was moving his hands.
It was later determined he had been knocked unconscious, and was not seriously hurt.
Davis' tackle helped the Panthers clinch the win.
Carolina was clinging to a 20-13 lead with four minutes remaining, and Dallas was driving. The Cowboys faced third-and-5 at mid-field. Davis stopped Williams 1 yard shy of a first down.
After Davis was taken off the field, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-1. The game, and the seasons of two teams, were on the line.
Quarterback Troy Aikman went back to pass, but couldn't find an open receiver. He ran around as Panthers defenders chased him, but he couldn't get away. Aikman fell down, Chad Cota was credited with the sack and the Cowboys lost 25 yards.
That gave the Panthers the ball and caused Dom Capers to make one of his more emotional sideline reactions in his three seasons as the Panthers' coach. Capers thrust his hands into the air and yelled, ``Yes! Yes!''
Carolina, with Collins and Lane back into the game, put the finishing touches on the game. The Panthers drove to the Dallas 1 and settled for an 18-yard field goal by John Kasay.
The win helped Collins and the Panthers make amends for their Monday night massacre earlier this season, a 34-21 home loss to San Francisco on Sept. 29. Collins threw three interceptions and fumbled once in that game and was benched the following week.
He was much better against Dallas.
The Panthers were up 10-6 at halftime and used one of their best drives of the season to build the lead.
Carolina took the opening drive of the third quarter 69 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown, which came on a 1-yard pass from Collins to fullback Scott Greene.
Kasay's extra point put the Panthers ahead 17-6, and his 40-yard field goal with 8:01 left in the game made it 20-6.
That could have clinched it, but Dallas didn't quit. Aikman hit Michael Irvin on a 52-yard touchdown pass with 6:33 remaining to cut the lead to 20-13. Irvin put a nifty move on cornerback Tyrone Poole to beat him on the bomb.
But the Cowboys couldn't muster any more of a comeback and now are dangerously close to elimination from playoff contention. The last time Dallas didn't make the postseason was 1990.
It was a convincing win for Carolina.
Though the Panthers were ahead by four at halftime, they could have led by more. Two botched plays -- a failed fourth-and-1 running attempt and a fumble by quarterback Kerry Collins -- kept the score close.
The fourth-down play came with 9:28 remaining in the second quarter with the Panthers at the Dallas 9-yard line. Capers chose to go for the first down instead of sending in kicker John Kasay to try to a field goal, which would have been a 26-yard attempt.
The play was a run by fullback Scott Greene, but the blocking broke down and he was stopped for no gain by linebacker Randall Godfrey.
The Panthers thus wasted their best drive of the first half. They had gone 76 yards in 14 plays.
Collins' fumble came with Carolina leading 10-3. He dropped back to pass and was rushed from his blind side by Dallas defensive end Shante Carver, who blasted past left tackle Blake Brockermeyer to get to Collins.
Carver hit Collins and jarred the ball loose. Broderick Thomas recovered at the Carolina 34-yard line with 4:28 left in the first half.
That set up Dallas' second score, a 32-yard field goal by Richie Cunningham on the final play of the first half, cutting the Panthers' lead to 10-6.
Overall, it was a good first half for the Panthers. They outgained the Cowboys 157 yards to 88.
Lane's running led the way for the offense. He rushed 19 times for 89 yards.
Collins started out as cold as the snow flurries that fell in Charlotte on Monday, going 0-for-5 passing in the first quarter. But he completed his first pass of the second quarter and finished the period 8-of-12 for 67 yards.
The Panthers defense dominated the Cowboys in the first half. Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman was battered and chased by Carolina's blitzes and pass rushes. He competed 4-of-15 passes for 35 yards before halftime and had to sit out two plays after he was hit hard in the ribs by Panthers defensive lineman Les Miller.