So where do we go from here? The Dallas Cowboys finally put together a good game, in some ways a very good one, in beating the Cincinnati Bengals 30-7. The win came against one of the very few teams that are almost certainly worse than Dallas, so it may have actually done nothing more than put their draft position at risk. But from a purely mathematical point of view, they still remain alive in the race to the NFC East playoff slot. (I refuse to call that a crown.) That just seems like a Pyrrhic victory for whoever gets there. So if you are experiencing mixed emotions about this one, it is understandable.
Still there were some really encouraging things about how the Cowboys played that could be things to build on. Andy Dalton had a very strong performance in his return to Cincinnati, after a heartwarming pregame introduction from a team that truly seems to admire him. He would toss two touchdown passes with no interceptions, and outside of getting sacked a couple of times, was in control most of the game. Ezekiel Elliott broke a 26 yard run to get his team out of the shadow of their own end zone. Greg Zuerlein was three for three on field goals, including a 55 yarder in the fourth quarter. And the defense had by far their best game of the season, racking up turnovers and fourth down stops all over the place. DeMarcus Lawrence forced one fumble, proving that sacks are not necessarily the most important stat. Further evidence of that was Tyrone Crawford getting two of them on the same series of downs, with a big assist from Randy Gregory.
But however you feel about Team Win All You Can versus Team Tank, this was something that the coaching staff and players really needed. There is a lot of confidence to be gained, and hope for the future of this team should be a bit higher as well.
There are two ways to win football games, good play and good luck. The Cowboys certainly had both in the first half. The luck was the biggest component in building the 17-7 lead at the intermission, as the much maligned defense recovered three fumbles. First, there is an element of chance in whether fumbles happen. That was absolutely the case on the second of the three takeaways for Dallas, when the ball was jarred loose in a collision between Trayveon Williams and his offensive line. Then, you have to get to the ball before the other team, which is roughly a 50-50 proposition. So things went very well indeed for the Cowboys. The one negative aspect was how the offense stalled in the red zone after the first of the three set them up on the Cincinnati 32. It is something that has been a major issue all year. Greg Zuerlein was at least able to shake his kicking woes from last week and stake his team to an early 3-0 lead.
The next series saw that unforced fumble, and this time, Aldon Smith was not going to leave it up to the offense to get seven as he snatched the loose ball up and went 78 yards to do it himself. The next possession saw the Bengals drive deep into Dallas territory again, only to lose the handle once again, turning it over the the Cowboys at the 12 yard line.
That would set up the most impressive drive Andy Dalton has led this year, an 88 yard march that included three third down conversions, all on passes. With a second and nine from the 11, Dalton threw a low ball to Amari Cooper, but he snatched it from ankle height to get the touchdown and the largest lead the team has had all year at 17-0 - one they would eventually improve on this day.
But there was one thing of concern, and that was the way the Bengals were moving the ball when they were able to hang onto it. With turnovers not something that can be consistently produced, defenses need to get stops, and that was just not happening for the Cowboys. The Bengals would have a yardage advantage of 196 to 108, at halftime, as well as holding the ball for 18:20. The only defensive stop of the first 30 minutes was made by Cincinnati on that first Dallas possession. And Cincy would finally get on the board with a 77 yard march out of their own to cut the Cowboys’ advantage
It also led to a couple of rarities in the first half. The Cowboys only had two possessions outside of a single kneel down before intermission. And there were no punts by either side.
The third quarter saw the flow of the game return to something more expected. First the Cowboys had to again settle for a field goal after receiving the ball, wasting another big Tony Pollard return. He went 60 yards from three yards deep in the end zone, but the offense would sputter out at the two yard line. It is worth noting that on the two passes just before the field goal, there was arguably defensive pass interference that was not called. It was just two more entries into the “calls that go against the Cowboys” and would be joined later by an intentional grounding call on Dalton when his arm was hit as he released the ball, which as the announcer noted makes it hard to understand how that can be called.
After the Cowboys got the lead to 20-7, things started looking more like we would have expected from these two teams, exchanging punts into the fourth quarter. It may have been the Bengals, but the Dallas defense finally started showing some signs of life. However, Brandon Allen kept making big plays, especially on third downs. Even after he started limping noticeably following a Randy Gregory blindside hit, he made a pinpoint pass to convert a third and six. But red zone woes would come to visit the Bengals as a fourth and seven pass thrown from the Dallas 10 yard line sailed well out of the end zone. With only 7:23 left in the game, the Cowboys were very much in control, especially with Allen struggling just to get plays off and destined to not return.
Dalton even got a late touchdown pass to Pollard to make the margin wider, but it was a bit superfluous. So what does this really mean for the Cowboys? The defense looked worlds better, but it was against a backup quarterback, who was replaced by his backup before the end of the game. Is there really hope here, or was it just having such a bad opponent?
We’ll have to see how these final three games play out. For now, it still feels good to have a win to discuss the next few days, instead of the post mortem of another depressing loss.