Defense wins championships. If the Bengals truly believe they’re Super Bowl contenders, that mantra needs to mean something. Vontaze Burfict’s return looked like the indicator that Cincinnati was finally going to be able to stop the run, but alas, that wasn’t the case on Sunday. Despite being down Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys offense continued to roll, thanks to a monster outing from rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
On Sunday, the Cowboys couldn’t seem to do wrong. Dallas won the toss, elected to receive the ball and immediately got the ground game going. On the first drive of the game, Elliott churned out 42 rushing yards on four carries, eventually scoring a touchdown to give his team a 7-0 lead.
After a failed Bengals response, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott marched his team right back down the field, eventually punching in a five-yard touchdown run on a read-option to take a two-score lead. The Cowboys offense gained 10 first down on its first 18 plays, converting the lone third down it even faced.
The Bengals’ defensive struggles were difficult both to anticipate and understand. With Burfict back in the mix, Cincinnati’s run defense couldn’t stop anyone, surrendering 86 yards on 12 carries throughout the first two drives after allowing just 57 yards per game in the previous two weeks. Elliott finished the day with 134 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries.
And the offense wasn’t much better, committing penalties left and right and punting on five of its first six drives. Giovani Bernard interestingly got the start, and both he and Jeremy Hill looked good early on, rushing for 42 yards on their first seven combined carries. But with all of the penalties being committed, particularly by the offensive line, the offense couldn’t put itself in positions where running the ball would be advantageous. That became even more true when the team put itself into a hole that required frequent passing plays to attempt to get out of.
The Cowboys got the ball back and continued to roll. Jason Witten beat Josh Shaw on a 31-yard catch and stiff-armed Derron Smith into another area code, and Cole Beasley escaped from Rey Maualuga’s coverage to cash in on a 14-yard touchdown, giving Dallas a decisive 21-0 lead. After one half, this was clearly Dallas’ game to lose.
And with Mike Nugent’s miss on a 50-yard field goal attempt, it appeared as though the Bengals had been beaten by the third quarter. Elliott’s 60-yard touchdown run on the next play all but assured that.
Two fourth quarter touchdown catches from Brandon LaFell, who finished the day with a team-leading eight catches and 68 receiving yards, narrowed Dallas’ lead, but Cincinnati ultimately couldn’t do enough to dig itself out of the hole it dug itself into over the course of the first half.
The Bengals, now 2-3, head to New England to face a red-hot Patriots team fresh off a 33-13 victory in Cleveland. Cincinnati surely hopes Tyler Eifert will be able to return, as the tight end’s presence on offense changes games. Fortunately the Bengals’ matchup with the Patriots won’t be a must-win — the Chiefs won a playoff game after starting last season with a 1-5 record — but Cincinnati needs to start winning games soon if it wants to be taken seriously as a legitimate Super Bowl, let alone playoff contender. On to Foxborough.