If you’re looking for the toughest schedule to start the NFL season, you would be hard-pressed to pick anybody but the gauntlet the Cincinnati Bengals face in the first six weeks of the year. Back-to-back road games to open the season at the Jets and Steelers gave way to playing the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos and then the pesky Dolphins on short rest.
Now comes the start of a two-game stretch that could very well be the difference in making or missing the playoffs in the uber-competitive AFC. Before heading to Foxborough, Mass., and facing off against a rejuvenated Tom Brady and the Patriots, Cincinnati first must travel deep into the heart of Texas and deal with an up-and-coming Dallas Cowboys squad looking to keep pace in the NFC East. Both teams had a lot of folks talking in the offseason about making deep runs in the playoffs and Sunday’s contest will certainly give one of them some much-needed momentum after the first quarter of the season.
The Cowboys have a better record in 2016 and in their overall series with the Bengals by a 7-4 margin dating back to ‘73. More than half of Cincinnati’s roster wasn’t even born yet the last time the team won in Dallas back in 1988 but this is the Bengals’ first trip to AT&T Stadium.
Cincinnati at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, October 9, 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Bengals -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Stopping Zeke
The Bengals are ninth in the league in total defense and get back middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict just in time to face one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. The Cowboys’ offensive line gets most of the praise and that’s to be expected as the strength of the team, but rookie Ezekiel Elliott has steadily improved with each passing week. Cincinnati hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in nearly a calendar year but the Bengals will certainly be tested on Sunday by a team that loves to run the ball and is very effective doing so.
2. Mistake-free QB play
Dak Prescott has plenty of Dallas fans thinking Tony Romo should stay on the bench when he’s fully healed from a back injury after the rookie led the team to a 3-1 start. He’s been one of the surprises of the NFL season so far and has gone 132 pass attempts without an interception. If Prescott continues to play mistake-free, the Cowboys certainly have a chance. The same goes for his opposite number in Andy Dalton, who is third in the league in passing yards but middle of the pack when it comes to QB rating. The Bengals have had significant issues inside the red zone and Dalton needs to come up big near the goal line while not turning the ball over and giving Dallas a chance.
3. Injury ward
Despite Cincinnati’s 2-2 record, A.J. Green has been on a tear and it’s hard to argue that he’s not the best in the league right now. The question on everybody’s minds is if he’ll be matching up against Dez Bryant, another dangerous wide receiver who could miss his second straight game with a knee injury. Also questionable for Sunday is Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle/back), who is a big-time target for Dalton and could help a lot on third down and in the red zone. Luckily for Dallas, his opposite number Jason Witten will be in action and a focus for the Bengals’ defense.
There may be bigger names in action on Sunday but very few games present as compelling a matchup as Dallas hosting Cincinnati. Both teams still have enough talent to make it to the playoffs and even make some noise and have battled through some adversity to start the season. It terms of momentum, this game is potentially huge for the winner and could put a serious damper on winning either ultra-competitive division for the loser.
The headliners are fairly obvious and almost all on the defensive side of the ball. Native Texan Andy Dalton is no stranger to pulling off big wins in the metroplex from his days down the road at TCU and will bring with him the most productive wideout in the NFL in battery mate A.J. Green. It seems doubtful that we’ll get to see him square off against Dez Bryant due to the latter’s injury but a more pressing concern for Green might be Dallas corner Morris Claiborne, who is finally playing like a first-rounder and has been one of the best cover guys to start off 2016. The Bengals’ normally stingy defense will also have its hands full with an offense that doesn’t wow you in terms of big plays but can run right over you if you’re not careful before Dak Prescott drops back to pick you apart.
Cincinnati has had a brutal schedule to deal with so far and enter the game much more battle-tested than its opponents. While the Bengals have had their struggles in the red zone, they may not need to worry as much against a Dallas defense that has allowed opponents to move the ball fairly regularly inside and outside of the 20. The Cowboys will likely try to lean on their ground game and try to limit possessions but the bottom line is their defense isn’t quite up to the task yet of stopping Dalton, Green and a Bengals team that has their backs starting to press up against the wall a bit.
Prediction: Bengals 35, Cowboys 24
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Ezekiel Elliott photo courtesy of Getty Images)