CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — When Tony Romo last visited Carolina just over a year ago, he helped Dallas set a team record with 25 fourth-quarter points in a comeback win in his first NFL start.
Romo quickly went from an undrafted unknown to a star. The big contract soon followed, then the celebrity girlfriends.
But as Romo returns to face the Panthers on Saturday night, he’ll bring with him a sore right thumb, controversy surrounding his latest big-name squeeze, and growing curiosity if he can bounce back from one of the worst games of his otherwise storybook career.
The smooth ride for Dallas (12-2) ended after Romo’s struggles, Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode’s knee injury and the one-game suspension to safety Roy Williams.
Oh, and Terrell Owens had to apologize to Romo’s girlfriend, Jessica Simpson, after hinting that maybe the Cowboys’ soap opera setting had returned at an inopportune time.
“We don’t feel like our backs are against the wall or we’re in an adverse situation,” defensive end Marcus Spears said. “We just have to play well and we’ve got to play our best. Usually that’s good enough.”
The Cowboys will face the latest undrafted quarterback to make a splash. Matt Moore, who spent training camp with the Cowboys before getting cut, is coming off a better game than Romo after leading Carolina to a surprising win over Seattle in his first start.
“Their team overall hasn’t had a good year. But they beat a playoff team, division champ, playoff team last week at home,” Dallas coach Wade Phillips said of the Panthers (6-8). “We’re a division champ, playoff team and we’re going in there.”
The Cowboys didn’t look like a team trying to lock down home-field advantage and avoid a possible trip to Green Bay (12-2) in January during their 10-6 loss to the Eagles on Sunday.
A week after slipping past Detroit in less-than-spectacular fashion, Romo bruised his thumb in the first half against Philadelphia. With Simpson sitting in a luxury box wearing a pink Romo jersey and cheering on her beau, Romo stayed in the game but was awful. He completed only 13 of 36 passes for 214 yards and three interceptions and the Cowboys were held without a touchdown for the first time in three years.
Could Romo have been distracted? On Wednesday, Owens said Simpson isn’t very popular in the locker room these days. The ensuing firestorm led Owens to apologize, saying he was only joking.
Romo, who dated Carrie Underwood last year, was limited in practice and ducked reporters this week. But Romo is expected to play Saturday, with Corey Proctor likely snapping to him in his first career start in place of Gurode (knee).
Minus Romo being one of an NFL-high 11 Cowboys to be named to the Pro Bowl, the week has been full of potholes.
Williams was suspended Monday for one game for another “horse collar” tackle on Donovan McNabb. His appeal was turned down Wednesday, and Keith Davis will likely replace Dallas’ leader in solo tackles.
A week ago, the Cowboys’ many problems wouldn’t seem to matter against the Panthers, who had lost six of seven and were preparing to start their NFL-high fourth quarterback against the NFC West champions.
Then Moore, who still occasionally exchanges text messages with Romo, had a turnover-free performance and led three fourth-quarter scoring drives in Carolina’s 13-10 win over the Seahawks.
Who knew Moore would be the hotter quarterback going into Saturday’s game?
“I’m pleased with just how I managed the game,” said Moore, who played at Oregon State. “I didn’t make a huge mistake, that was big. Any little turnover or a third-down mishap or whatever, that could have changed the game.”
The Panthers’ defense has also improved. Behind safety Chris Harris’ NFL-high eight forced fumbles and energetic rookie linebacker Jon Beason, Carolina held Seattle to 44 yards rushing and Matt Hasselbeck without a touchdown pass until 1 second left.
“The secondary made plays. The D-line made plays,” Beason said. “We know we can win that way.”
Carolina is the only 6-8 team still mathematically alive in the playoff race, which is hard to believe considering Carolina’s quarterbacks struggles.
And after upsetting Seattle, maybe the heavy underdogs will have a chance against Dallas, which looked beatable after Romo had snapped his team-record streak of 17 straight games with at least one touchdown pass.
Maybe Romo needs to think back to his starting debut nearly 14 months ago against Carolina, when he turned a 14-10 fourth-quarter deficit into a 35-14 win — before the A-list invites started rolling in.
“It seemed so special because it was such a back-and-forth game. Tony just kind of took over there toward the end,” recalled tight end Jason Witten. “I remember that because it showed us what our future was going to hold for us with our quarterback and finally finding that guy.
“I just remember how well he really played.”