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Peppers helps Carolina get taste of postseason

Drafted by a 1-15 team desperate for a star, Julius Peppers didn't want the responsibility of carrying the Carolina Panthers.

Turns out, he's done a fine job.

In two seasons, Peppers has stabilized the defensive line and helped carry Carolina (11-5) to the playoffs. The Panthers host Dallas (10-6) tomorrow night in their first postseason game in seven years.

"It makes life easier for the whole group when you bring a guy of Julius's talent into the mix," coach John Fox said. "He's an easy guy to be a teammate with, he's a good person, he's a good guy, he has a great attitude."

Peppers stepped in and immediately bolstered Carolina's defense as a rookie. Anchoring the line on the left side, he had 12 sacks in 12 games before a four-game NFL suspension for taking a banned dietary supplement ended his season.

But by the time his exile began, the Panthers' defense had climbed from the bottom of the league rankings to No. 2. It played a huge role in Carolina improving from 1-15 in 2001 to 7-9 last year.

Peppers deflects credit, instead pointing to former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and linemates Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins, and Brentson Buckner.

But the line wants to credit Peppers. Although his numbers are down this year -- seven sacks in a full 16-game season -- the line had 32 1/2 this year, led by Rucker's career-best 12.

Panthers on offense -- Wide receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad have developed into one of the most productive twosomes in the NFC. Smith established career highs this season with 88 receptions, 1,110 yards receiving, and seven touchdowns in becoming just the fifth player in team history to produce more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Muhammad added 54 catches for 837 yards and three touchdowns. Still, look for Carolina to try to control the game on the ground with Stephen Davis, who rushed for a franchise-record 1,444 yards and eight touchdowns.

Cowboys on offense -- Quincy Carter has resurrected his career, but still has a long way to go before he can join the ranks of elite quarterbacks. Of the 12 playoff starters, Carter is the only one with more interceptions (21) than touchdown passes (17). Still, he did guide Dallas to 10 wins, and he did it without a top runner. Troy Hambrick gained 972 yards but averaged only 3.5 yards a carry.

Panthers on defense -- The unit finished the regular season playing its best football. After finishing second in total defense in 2002, the Panthers had trouble matching that success in 2003. But by moving up to the eighth spot by season's end, they silenced a lot of critics.

Cowboys on defense -- Linebacker Dat Nguyen was the sparkplug for the NFL's top-ranked defense. He led the team with 119 tackles, and he also had two sacks, 11 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and two recoveries.

Special teams -- Michael Bates, a five-time Pro Bowl kick returner and special teamer with the Panthers in 1996-2000, was signed by the Cowboys Christmas Day after being waived by the Jets. He returned kicks in their regular-season finale and averaged 22.5 yards on four returns, including one for 30. Panthers Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun led the NFC with 44.6-yard average, becoming the first punter since 1970 to lead the conference in average three years in row.

Miscellany -- Carter has excelled in his last two outings against the Panthers. Last season, he threw two TD passes in the final four minutes for a 14-13 victory. Six weeks ago, he was 29 of 43 for 254 yards and two TDs in a 24-20 victory at Texas Stadium . . . Carolina tied a league record with seven wins by 3 points or fewer this season . . . Cowboys rookie tight end Jason Witten had a team-high six catches in this season's win over the Panthers.

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