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Dominant Panthers prove they're worthy of 16-0 talk

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Jerry Jones couldn't have dreamed up a bigger Thanksgiving nightmare. America's Team was just a supporting actor on the holiday.

Now that the Panthers are the only undefeated team left in the NFL, Cam Newton and his Carolina buddies will be on center stage all by themselves. And there are plenty of reasons they can ride this perfect record all the way to the playoffs. 

Thursday's 33-14 destruction of the Cowboys was the latest proof that Carolina is picking up steam in a bid to become the third team in NFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. Tony Romo's collarbone injury was difficult to watch, but it sadly just confirmed that the football gods have not smiled upon the Cowboys.

Dallas gets a lot of attention because it drives ratings and webpage views, but the Panthers drive the ball down opposings teams' throats week after week. This is the best Panthers team since at least 1996, and they shouldn't be anyone's underdogs.

The win over the Cowboys showed why the Panthers have been so special. They play complementary football, and know how to finish games. Carolina's relentless defense finished with three takeaways and only 210 yards allowed, much of that in garbage time. Led by Luke Kuechly's two interceptions, the Panthers' defense essentially scored 17 points on its own.

Dallas' vaunted offensive line and streaking running game was held to 39 yards. The Panthers made life miserable for Romo, pressuring him into poor decisions. Romo averaged only five yards per attempt on 21 throws along with three interceptions before leaving. It was a humbling game well before Romo's unfortunate injury. Even if Romo was in midseason form, this would have been a mismatch. The Cowboys were a legitimate powerhouse a season ago, but this Panthers team is far more balanced than the 2014 Cowboys.

The Panthers don't need five touchdown throws out of Cam Newton each week. But his performance Thursday was a perfect example of how the Panthers win week after week. Newton helped extend drives by going 8 of 16 on third downs. His rushing ability and the threat of his run game led to 139 yards on the ground, the 22nd straight game they have topped 100 yards.

Newton also delivered a handful of lasers, usually up the seams, to extend drives early in the game. He avoided a turnover for the third straight game. He's controlling the offense more than ever at the line of scrimmage.

This is the team that Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula imagined in their dreams. They are tougher and smarter than their competition on both sides of the ball. After two games earlier in the season (Colts, Packers) where they allowed big leads to slip, they have finished off their last three opponents with a flourish.

The real NFL season starts at Thanksgiving, so it's no longer too early to seriously contemplate a 16-0 Panthers squad. They don't have a lay-up in their final five weeks. Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Jameis Winston and Eli Manning are all good enough to get hot for a day and pull off an upset. Winning in New Orleans, New York and Atlanta would come with complications. But there are no top-10 teams left on the docket.

This is a team that has passed every test, and that includes making the Cowboys an afterthought on their biggest day. Why not chase perfection?

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