The game of football often can be one of egos. Wide receivers are often thought of as the players who have the biggest ones, but sometimes an entire team just oozes narcissism. It’s a trait that has long-lived with the Dallas Cowboys, who have embraced the moniker of “America’s Team”, given to the club in the late-1970s by an NFL Films producer.
Dallas’ outspoken and flamboyant owner, Jerry Jones, brought a new flair to the Cowboys franchise when he purchased the team in 1989. He oversaw construction of a team that was the best of the 1990s because of their three Super Bowl championships, but other struggles in the years after Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Jimmy Johnson have brought criticism to one of the most popular teams in the NFL.
It just comes with the territory in being “America’s Team”.
Quarterback Tony Romo has had the team on the precipice of greatness, but injuries, bad luck and poor play at critical times has brought massive disappointment of late. Jones, being all about the flash, has invested high draft picks at the skill positions while building an incredible new stadium, affectionately known as “Jerry World”. The owner has tried to replicate the Hall of Fame triplets of the 1990s with Romo, Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott, but injuries have taken the wind out of the sails in recent seasons.
And, unfortunately, it’s in those injuries that has created a major storyline for the marquee matchup in Week 5 between the 3-1 Cowboys and 2-2 Bengals. Romo is out of the lineup because of a preseason back injury and Bryant is iffy at best with a fractured bone in his leg.
Meanwhile, the Bengals and their fans continue to await the return of Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert. While it seemed like he’d make his return after the mini-bye week Cincinnati gained by playing last Thursday night, a sore back seems to have delayed his 2016 comeback. His absence continues to dull a game that could have had star players lined up all over the field for both teams.
Credit Dallas, though. With a tandem of rookies at critical positions, they are currently around the top of the NFC East standings. Elliott has been as advertised, especially the past two weeks, with 278 rushing yards and a touchdown—both wins for the Cowboys. Additionally, Dak Prescott has stepped in for Romo and has looked nothing like a rookie signal-caller. The former Mississippi State standout hasn’t had a single turnover in four games while harnessing his preseason stardom.
On the flip side, we still can’t get a grasp on just who this Bengals team is in 2016. After losing the types of games against quality teams that they need to start winning to be taken seriously, they dug deep and took it to the Miami Dolphins on the national stage. Cincinnati isn’t running the ball well and they weren’t rushing the passer with consistency until last week, so it has been hard to pinpoint just what they are really good at this season.
If there is a bright spot, it has been kicker Mike Nugent. It’s not necessarily something that good teams like to hang their hat on, but the embattled kicker has helped to carry this team through the first month of the season. His five field goals against Miami were huge, but also pointed to a glaring deficiency that wasn’t an issue with the Bengals last year: red zone offense.
Against better teams than the Miami’s of the world, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns comes back to haunt teams. The correlation of the Bengals’ struggles in the red zone this year directly points to Eifert’s missing of the first four games, but it also points to the need of better play from a once-proud offensive line and the stepping up of new receiver options in Andy Dalton’s arsenal.
For as enigmatic as the Bengals are this season, the same could be said for the Cowboys. Sure, the 3-1 start is definitely impressive because of the player attrition, but who have they really played?
Their last two wins have come against the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, respectively, who currently have a collective record of 2-7. Their only loss came against arguably the best team on their schedule, the 2-2 New York Giants.
There are a lot of areas one can point to as critical ones for the Bengals to leave Big D as a 3-2 ball club. The rise in pressure from the star-studded Cincinnati defensive line against the mammoths up front for Dallas is definitely one. Making the rookie Prescott uncomfortable and forcing turnovers from him for the first time in 2016 is another.
To me, it comes down to doing the one thing the Bengals have done well this season: Dalton feeding A.J. Green. Sure, he was smothered in the loss at Pittsburgh and had a critical drop in the heartbreaking loss to Denver, but in the two wins the Bengals have had, Green dominated the opposition. Aside from that, getting the run game going and keeping the Dallas offense off of the field should be a point of emphasis this week.
Dallas has a trio of talented defensive backs in Byron Jones, Brandon Carr and the rejuvenated Morris Claiborne, but can they contain Green? Linebacker Sean Lee is a star, but it’s hard to pick out other standouts on Dallas’ front seven that equate to those they have on offense. And, for better or worse for Cowboys fans, that’s what comes with a Jerry Jones-owned football team.
One could call this the “prove it game”. Which one of these two are a pretender and which is the contender? As this week rolled on, I found it hard to pick the Bengals, as going to Dallas isn’t a cakewalk.
But, as more time passed and more people were in my ear, I started to rely on the overall experience of the Bengals compared to the Cowboys. Additionally, if the Bengals were coming off of a traditional week and were traveling, I’d be more inclined to go with Dallas. But, those extra couple of days always help—especially when heading out on the road.
In my estimation, this game has the potential of being a close contest, winnable by either team, or one that Cincinnati can pull away from comfortably. I think the loss of Bryant looms large for Prescott and the Cowboys. Even though they were able to get by without him against San Francisco, I think Cincinnati is a better team than both the 49ers and the Cowboys and will jump-start their season with their third win.
Bengals 27, Cowboys 17
AC — Trust the substance, not the sizzle.