The Dallas Cowboys won a nailbiter over the Cincinnati Bengals 20-17, with an old familiar name playing the last-second hero. After dominating the first half, Dallas let the Bengals back into the game. Things were set up for another disappointment under pressure, but with just seconds left on the clock, Brett Maher drilled a 50-yard field goal to win the game. He is now perfect on the season, and our worries about bringing him back to the team look kind of foolish. It was an important step for a team that is decimated by injury and was in danger of falling too far behind in a division that is performing much better than expected.
The big concern for the Cowboys was having to start Cooper Rush as quarterback against the defending AFC champions, but in the first half, he looked like an experienced starter. He gave Dallas a 17-3 lead at half on 12 of 18 passing for 162 yards and a touchdown. The first drive of the game was nearly flawless out of being forced to go for it on fourth down while still in their own territory, but Rush calmly found Noah Brown for 17 yards to keep it alive, and then capped the drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass, the first of Brown’s career. Brown was the offensive star of the first half, with a total of four catches for 79 yards. The running game contributed as well, with 65 yards. Ezekiel Elliott led with 36 yards, while Tony Pollard added 18 and a touchdown. That score was handed off to him after he took a little pass in the backfield 46 yards down the sideline and was ruled down just inches short. However, Elliott and Pollard both had only 3.6 yards per carry. Elliott’s average was pulled down by a tackle for a loss that looked like the offensive line blew their assignments.
But the calm efficiency of Rush was the biggest positive for the team, and Kellen Moore’s play-calling deserves some praise as well. Rush engineered back-to-back touchdown drives to open the game, then got the team within Maher’s range to make it a two TD margin at half.
Meanwhile, the defense was holding up their end of the bargain. Joe Burrow is notorious for holding the ball and getting sacked, which was just what the Cowboys liked to see. Micah Parsons opened things up with the first of the game, then Dorance Armstrong got two more before Dante Fowler was credited with a fourth on a play where he knocked the ball loose from Burrow’s hand. When they weren’t getting to Burrow, the pass rushers were pressuring him into hurried and inaccurate throws. DeMarcus Lawrence didn’t get a sack in the half, but led the team with four tackles, including one he made while lying flat on the turf. The only real issue with the defense was two penalties for unnecessary roughness hitting Burrow when he was going down, on Anthony Barr and Donovan Wilson respectively. But the team didn’t seem to miss Jayron Kearse, who was out with the injury he suffered last week.
Special teams also had a couple of very good moments on Maher’s field goal and a very nice 20-yard punt return from KaVontae Turpin.
It looked like the Dallas defense was going to keep things going with a three and out to start the second half, but yet another penalty, this one for offsides, gave the Bengals new life. Despite Parson getting his second sack to put Cincinnati in a 2nd and 22, Cincy got into Dallas territory to set up a 50-yard field goal attempt that was right down the middle.
It was certainly important to see how Rush and the offense would respond on their first possession after halftime. They still had a two-score lead in their favor but with the Bengals showing a little life after half, they needed to keep moving the ball. But all they could muster was a three and out on two handoffs and then a too-tall pass to Ezekiel Elliott. After some very good play-calling in the first half, it was somewhat unsettling to see them go conservative, especially against a team that usually plays its best ball after halftime. The resulting punt was returned to the Cincinnati 41. Burrow promptly led the team into Cowboys territory and they were threatening to go in for a touchdown, but Parsons got pressure and Leighton Vander Esch got credit for the sack. They still got another field goal, this one from 46, and it was down to a one score lead for Dallas at 17-9.
Moore dialed up a rollout pass to CeeDee Lamb for 15 yards after the ensuing touchback to loosen things up. It looked like a couple of defensive penalties after and Ezekiel Elliott doing some work would get Dallas into scoring territory, but Dalton Schultz fumbled a ball at the Bengals 26 to give the opponents new life. But the defense got a quick three and out thanks to a batted pass by Dante Fowler. All it led to was an exchange of punts, however, as the Cowboys squandered a 17-yard run by Pollard when Rush was sacked on third and seven.
.Then came the most bizarre moment of the game when a Bryan Anger punt apparently hit the bottom of the huge video screen at AT&T Stadium, but the referees said it could not be confirmed, and the ball was downed at the 17-yard line. The Bengals sideline was livid about not getting the by-rules do-over. That did not throw them off, however, as Burrow marched them down the field, including a fourth-and-six conversion on a play where Trevon Diggs just missed the PBU. The drive would end in a five-yard Tee Higgins touchdown, followed by a successful two-point conversion to tie the game. It took almost nine minutes off the clock.
During the Cincinnati possession, Micah Parsons came up limping. Although he would return to the field, it has to be something of a concern for a team that already has so many players hurt. It seemed to slow him a bit, which basically took away his superpower.
With 3:45 left on the clock, the pressure was really on the offense. Not only did they need to score to avoid overtime, they could not afford to be forced into a quick punt and leave the Bengals too much time to work with. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened, although they did get a 24-yard reception to Lamb before having to punt. That left the Bengals with the ball on their own 8-yard line and 2:13 to work with. Then Diggs came up big with a rock solid third-down tackle to force Cincinnati to punt. Now Dallas had the ball at their own 35, 57 seconds, and one timeout to try and work down to get a score. They managed to get to the Bengals 35 with just 24 ticks. They managed to get a short Tony Pollard run and a spike by Rush to set up Maher’s kick.