OK. I’m in.
I wasn’t in before Sunday’s Dallas-Cincinnati game. I wasn’t on board with the idea of these Cowboys being contenders. The loss to the Giants I expected. The win over Washington wasn’t that impressive, frankly. The wins over Chicago and San Francisco were perfect timing. The Bears were so banged up only the Cowboys could truly sympathize. The Niners were led by a quarterback that is about to be replaced.
No, I took the Bengals on Sunday. I felt this would be the game we would find out this whole 3-1 start was fool’s gold. The Bengals were a team with a Top-10 defense (on paper), a solid offense with a truly dangerous weapon in wide receiver A.J. Green, and a front four on defense that hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher so far this season. I thought the Cowboys would be in the game, mind you. But late, with the game on the line, the defense would make a key mistake, like it always seems to in games like this and the Bengals would walk away with the win.
But after this, a 28-14 Cowboys win in which they thoroughly dominated the Bengals? I’m in now. I’m all in on this Cowboys team being the favorite in the NFC East and, perhaps, a leading contender in the NFC.
And yes it would be just swell to spent several hundred words writing about Ezekiel Elliott and that offensive line. And we simple must address Jerry Jones' comments on Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan during which he -- for the first time -- strayed away from the "This Is Tony's Team'' mantra.
“I think what Dak Prescott's success (so notable now that he's the Sports Illustrated cover guy this week) has done is given us (that) luxury," Jones said -- "that'' being patience with the rehabbing Tony Romo and maybe also meaning a willingness to stick with the hot hand. “No one is happier about this than Tony. It's given us the luxury to absolutely maximize any thought that we might have with his rehab time and just have the ability to weigh that as we go and pick our spots.”
Added Jerry: Romo "knows this game against Cincinnati enhanced his chances of being in the Super Bowl. ... He can see that this is going to give him an opportunity to be on a Cowboy team that’s got a chance to do it and really do it in a big way."
While we're "pinching ourselves'' about the offense and its future -- led by whomever -- and maybe wondering if Jerry's comments needlessly open up a can of QB-controversy worms ... really, we need to talk about the defense right now.
This is how the Cowboys envision this working. The offense pounds away with the run, gets the lead and sets up the defense with a lead. When this happens, the full menu of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s playbook can be used to its full potential.
Start with the scheme on Sunday. There have been times when one could accuse Marinelli of hewing too close to the man-to-man principles in the secondary. Well on Sunday, facing a receiver of Green’s caliber, Marinelli went straight to a two deep zone and it worked like a charm. Using the two-deep allowed him to roll coverage help where his corners needed it and stifled Green, who had just four catches for 50 yards.
This was key as the game developed and the Cowboys built a larger lead. The Bengals had to deviate from the run game they wanted to use behind Gio Bernard — who was successful early in the game — and start throwing the ball more often.
That still could have allowed the Bengals to get back into the game, so the Cowboys needed their secondary to make plays, and it did. In fact, this might have been the secondary’s best game, overall. Brandon Carr drew Green in coverage quite often and handled it. Sixth-round pick Anthony Brown had another nice game playing in the slot in place of Orlando Scandrick. Safeties Byron Jones and Barry Church gave little ground. And cornerback Morris Claiborne had a great moment in the second half.
Claiborne committed two penalties on the Bengals’ first drive of the second half. The second penalty, a pass interference call, came on 3rd-and-10 and kept the Bengals’ drive alive. Before this year those calls might have weighed on Claiborne and led to giving up a big play. Well, three plays later Bengals QB Andy Dalton took his shot at Claiborne downfield, throwing a potential touchdown pass to Green. Claiborne broke it up. The Bengals had to settle for a field goal and they missed.
Meanwhile, the pass rush had its best game of the season, by far. Four sacks by this defense — and none of them came from DeMarcus Lawrence — and so much pressure around Dalton kept the Bengals’ offense off-balance all afternoon. The Cowboys have talked about waves of pressure from the front four, and we’ve seen it in pieces but not in full like we saw it on Sunday. Credit Lawrence’s return if you want, even though he didn’t record a statistic. If nothing else his return allowed his teammates to return to their normal roles in the defense and Terrell McClain took advantage of it the most, ending up with 1.5 sacks. The Cowboys registered sacks from interior defenders and edge defenders. The Cowboys found a favorable matchup in tackle Andrew Whitworth and picked at that mismatch all afternoon.
These are the things we’ve seen in pieces but not in a complete game like Sunday afternoon. And I don’t think it was a flash in the pan, either. Defenses don’t dominate offenses like the Cowboys dominated the Bengals on Sunday if they don’t have something going for them. And this unit does.
So I’m in. I’m banking on these Cowboys winning the NFC East. Maybe it’s too early to say it. But that’s where I’m at, and chances are that’s where most Cowboys fans are at, too. And with Jerry mentioning "Tony and Dak and Super Bowl'' all in the same breath? Well, that makes it near-official inside The Star at Frisco, too.
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