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The Stars Aligned: Cowboys 28, Bengals 14

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The Cincinnati Bengals were mere participants in a show featuring two impressive rookies in Dallas as the protagonists.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

At one point during Sunday’s Bengals game, I was researching (RESEARCHING!). I mean, who researches meaningless data during the middle of an NFL game? It was early in the third quarter, while Cincinnati was bleeding profusely from their battered bodies, with Dallas holding a commanding 28-0 lead. What else was I expected to do? Purposefully watch this nightmare unfold? My questions:

  • When was the last time the Bengals lost by 28 points or more in a game? The answer: They lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 44-13, during the regular season opener in 2012 on Monday Night Football (yes, you remember that game).
  • When was the last time the Bengals lost by 35 points or more in a game? Dallas, leading 28-0 with 39 seconds remaining in the third quarter, had reached Cincinnati’s 18-yard line. I have reached a state of virtual hysterics during this semi-national game. The answer: Cincinnati lost 37-0 during the regular season finale in 2009 against the New York Jets. It was the game in which Carson Palmer completed one of seven passes for zero yards and threw an interception for a passer rating of 1.7 (yes, you remember that game too).

Fortunately, in Sunday’s loss in Dallas, Carlos Dunlap forced a strip-sack of quarterback Dak Prescott, and after 20 seconds of grown men acting out a Benny Hill skit trying to capture a rolling football, Vincent Rey recovered the football. 10 plays and 59 yards later, the Bengals scored their first touchdown, a seven-yard toss to Brandon LaFell, reducing Dallas’s lead, 28-7.

Now we can close these ridiculous “last time” references for now; though we’re bookmarking those references for next weekend when the Bengals visit the Patriots during Tom Brady’s home debut in New England.

Sigh.

What an awful performance.

It was awfulness in totality, too. Even the most optimistic fan is struggling to find something worth promoting. It was like the coaches didn’t coach, the players didn’t defend, block, catch, run, or throw. Cincinnati’s first six possessions resulted in punt, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, and punt. Even when they made progress, mistakes forcefully negated their success.

Vincent Rey was flagged for illegal contact, allowing Dallas to score their second touchdown. And with 10:37 remaining in the first quarter, Cincinnati had first down from Dallas’ 45-yard line. Kevin Zeitler was flagged for a false start and offensive hold, putting the Bengals back on their own 40-yard line, facing a first-and-25. Predictably, they couldn’t recover.

Four of Dallas’ first five possessions, excluding the knee at the end of the first half, ended with touchdowns.

Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s performance against Dallas is promoting a troubling trend:

Dallas is a good football team, with young stars at critical positions with an all-star offensive line to protect them.

It all started with Ezekiel Elliott.

Let me reflect for a moment:

Ohio State’s National Championship run in 2014 was remarkable for a number of reasons; it featured the rise of third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, a collection of NFL-ready defenders, the explosive Devin Smith, and the return of Urban Meyer to prominence in college football. Yet it was the dominating rushing performance by Ezekiel Elliott that propelled Ohio State into the National Championship picture.

During the Big Ten Championship, Elliott sprinted for 220 yards and scored two touchdowns during Ohio State’s shocking 59-0 shutout against Wisconsin. Against Alabama, during the first-round of the inaugural college football playoff, he destroyed the Crimson Tide for 230 yards and two scores. Then, during the National Championship, Elliott pounded the Oregon Ducks with 246 yards and four (FOUR!) rushing touchdowns.

It was amazing. He was amazing. It was a glorious time to be alive as a Buckeyes fan.

As a Bengals fan, unless Cincinnati drafted Elliott (there was no chance of that), there would be a game where the Bengals would face one of the most lethal running backs to come out of college in a long time (that wasn’t a worn-down back from ‘Bama). Saying that “I’m nervous about being on the other side of Zeke Elliott” is a serious understatement that became a reality on Sunday.

Cincinnati’s 14-28 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was not unlike the quick removal of a band-aid; it hurt briefly but the scare will remain. My Twitter account was loaded with frustration, mostly demanding the removal of the entire coaching staff (though only one AJ McCarron reference surfaced).

Credit Elliott, who gashed Cincinnati’s fifth-ranked defense for 42 yards rushing during Dallas’ first possession of the game, eventually giving Dallas a 7-0 lead with a 13-yard touchdown run at the 11:15 mark in the first quarter. Elliott finished with 134 yards rushing on 15 carries (8.9 yards/rush) with two touchdowns.

When Elliott wasn’t gashing the Bengals, it was Terrance Williams finding massive lanes against man coverage, generating first downs on his first three receptions for 11, 17, and 21 yards; the last entering the red zone with 38 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Williams finished with a team-leading five receptions for 70 yards receiving.

For a moment it appeared Cincinnati would benefit from errors by the Cowboys. Despite an illegal shift and a fumbled exchange, Vincent Rey was flagged for illegal contact on third down, rewarding Dallas with a new set of downs. Dallas took a 14-0 lead when Prescott faked the handoff to Elliott and coasted into the end zone on the next play.

Dallas added another a third touchdown on a 14-yard Cole Beasley reception with 4:17 remaining in the second, concluding an 80-yard touchdown drive that was embarrassingly highlighted by a Jason Witten 31-yard reception which included backup safety Derron Smith being stiff-armed through the upper-crust of planet Earth.

By this point, it felt academic. Cincinnati’s defensive front seven was ineffective and, save for a handful of plays by Adam Jones, the secondary was nonexistent. Offensively, Cincinnati was remarkably worse, concluding their first four possessions with punts.

It’s also incomprehensible that Cincinnati fails to find ways to get A.J. Green the football, either through creating mismatches, or moving Green around more dynamically. Are we talking about coaching or the need of another receiver? Regardless of how it happens, the end result requires that Green makes a stronger impact in games against teams like the Cowboys, Steelers or Broncos, and not just the Jets or Dolphins.

Cincinnati’s offense tried to enter the second half with swagger, attitude and aggressiveness, with help from a pair of Morris Claiborne penalties. However, pretending to be tough is hardly the same when you’re on the losing end of significant momentum. Their opening possession in the second half stalled at the 32-yard line — their best field position by this point of the game. Predictably, Mike Nugent hooked the 50-yard attempt wide right and Cincinnati remained scoreless with 11:47 remaining in the third.

The hypothetical nail was slammed shut in Cincinnati’s coffin after Elliott watched massive separation along the line of scrimmage, and sprinting straight-ahead (without any deviation) for a 60-yard touchdown run. Dallas’s offensive line had zone blocking assignments, using the defenders momentum wherever they wanted to go while Elliott used his first-class instinct to identify a lane.

On to New England.

F**k.