During last year's Super Bowl run the Bengals wore the mantle of "America's Team," and Sunday in Dallas (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) they play the franchise looking to get it back.
After losing the opener and their quarterback last week, the Cowboys aren't favored to do it this week in the latest conclave of the Bengals.com Media Roundtable. It is the Bengals who head into AT&T Stadium with the hot creative head coach, the stingy, interchangeable defense and the swashbuckling All-American quarterback.
The Cincinnati contingent of The Athletic's Jay Morrison and CLNS Media's Mike Petraglia don't see Burrow repeating last week's knocking-the-rust-off outing. Two former Bengals beat reporters who scribed in the days when Greg Truitt was the Bengals radar long snapper are split. Todd Archer, a two-decade staple on the Cowboys beat for ESPN.com after his run at The Cincinnati Post, sees Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy continuing his week two magic. Alex Marvez, who broke in at The Dayton Daily News on his way to becoming the Pro Bowl bass for Sirius NFL Radio, calls it for the Bengals because they've got too much for a troubled Cowboys team.
Let's go around The Table. As usual, visitors and the alphabet first:
It's not shaping up well for the Cowboys. You lose your starting quarterback in week one. You lose your starting left tackle in a training camp practice before the season even starts. It's not trending well. Now you've got Cooper Rush coming into play quarterback. I'm reminded what Bill Parcells used to tell us when he was the coach here. "There are ways to win these games." And I think the way they win this week is handing the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott and riding him. That might be something they should be doing anyway the way the roster is constructed, so I think this has to be an Ezekiel Elliott game.
Last year Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons finished second to T.J. Watt for NFL Defensive Player of the Year and with Watt out now maybe he becomes the favorite. He was unblockable in the opener against Tampa Bay. There are a lot of things they can do with him to make him be destructive. One thing he said this week that was insightful was this is a lot like last year. They lost to Tampa Bay. DeMarcus Lawrence goes out in practice the second week and breaks his foot. Everyone is down and they go out and beat the Chargers and a really good offense with Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen and all those guys. But I don't know if now if their confidence is destroyed.
THE EDGE: Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy's first week two wins against Atlanta and the Chargers came on last-second field goals. This makes it three straight. But there's no way they can get into a high-scoring game with the Bengals and expect to win. COWBOYS, 23-22
Under normal circumstances this game would be set up perfectly for the Bengals to lose, right? But there's so much bad stuff going on right now with the Dallas Cowboys, provided over confidence doesn't set in, this is a game the Bengals should win. This is a Dallas team 5-7 without Dak Prescott and four of those wins I believe came with Andy Dalton. It's hard to believe in Cooper Rush. And it's just not Rush. They've had trouble coming up with skilled players and the Bengals' strength is stopping the run and this creates a bad matchup for Dallas.
I think the Cowboys defense could give them some trouble with the struggles of the Bengals offensive line last Sunday. But the reality is, if not for an injury to the long snapper and Greg Truitt's unavailability during the game, the Bengals should win. I don't think Joe Burrow throws another four interceptions. I don't think he's sacked seven times. I just feel like the Bengals will find a way to block better. They have to to give this guy a chance.
THE EDGE: I just feel like the atmosphere is so negative in Dallas that unless they find something to rally around, I think Cincinnati bounces back. I'm having a weird score day. BENGALS 22, COWBOYS 16
What I think will not happen is that Joe Burrow won't turn the ball over five times again this week. I feel safe in that. I think the Bengals offense is not going to be explosive against a very opportunistic, decent Dallas defense, but I do think they'll score enough to win. I know a lot of people get scared by the backup quarterback Mike White thing. It's not the most recent, but it's not the only in a long list of unheralded quarterbacks that have beat them. But I think the Bengals defense is just too good to get taken by Cooper Rush.
The Dallas O-line has problems. I think it's going to be a competitive, close game but I think the Bengals have too much firepower offensively. Getting Tee Higgins back should help. I think Pittsburgh was clouding Ja'Marr anyhow last week and when Tee went out it really changed things. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan made the comment during the week that Joe learned a lesson. You don't need to score a touchdown on every drive. Early in the game, be a little more conservative. I do think you'll see the patient, run-the-ball, that kind of thing. I don't think you'll see the gunslinger, just go out and try to light up the scoreboard.
THE EDGE: Seventeen might be pushing it for the limits of Dallas' offense, but as we saw last week a defensive score can happen. I don't think the Bengals will play turnover-free. I can see the Cowboys capitalizing on a mistake or two, but however it plays out I think the Bengals will be able to score one more touchdown than the Cowboys. BENGALS, 24-17
I think the Bengals get off to a better start on offense. I think the offensive line, led by a guy coming back to Dallas, is going to want to prove a point., After what happened against the Steelers with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, their antenna is raised for Micah Parsons. A game-wrecker I believe Parsons was called by the Bengals coaching staff, I think they keep him neutralized as much as possible and I think they'll be able to throw the ball down field a little bit more.
I'm really curious to see how Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase does against Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs. I think Chase gets at least one long gain on a double move. I think he's going to try and get Trevon Diggs to bite, based on what Ja'Marr told us in the locker room on Wednesday, I think he feels confident he's going to be able to do that.
THE EDGE: It's classic bounce-back game, to me, against a banged-up Dallas team. This is not Pittsburgh. This defense has one or two guys you have to account for, but I think they should be able to put more points on the board earlier in the game and I think there's going to be an impetus to play from ahead and not 14 points down for 90 percent of the game. I think they create at least two turnovers from Cooper Rush and one of them is going to set them up for a touchdown. BENGALS, 31-14.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No one wants to start 0-2, but don't you get the sense that it is the Cowboys that are going to come out tighter than a Ja'Marr Chase glove?
The Cowboys are always a soap opera, doomed to play in the city with the same name of a 1980s network soaper. Now with quarterback Dak Prescott out for several weeks, a banged-up Dallas offensive line without its left tackle and the specter of Sean Payton wired into AT&T Stadium, how homey is this game going to feel for the Cowboys?
Last week was dominated by discussion of the Chase-Diggs matchup and the meeting between former Cowboys right tackle La'el Collins and Cowboys sack ace Micah Parsons.
So logic is another matchup is going to decide it and start with Bengals right end Trey Hendrickson going against Cowboys rookie left tackle Tyler Smith, filling in for injured all-decade tackle Tyron Smith.
Tyler Smith, a first-round pick, was solid in his NFL debut against Tampa Bay (when he gave up a sack and another pressure), but he was a guard until late in training camp and has yet to face someone of Hendrickson's caliber. With the Steelers playing it close to the vest, Hendrickson had a hit and a hurry on Mitch Trubisky after ending 2021 with 25.5 sacks in 29 games. He's due. Especially against a rookie feeling his way around tackle.
The Cowboys signed 40-year-old Jason Peters in the wake of Tyron Smith's injury and he may get a shot sooner or later with guard Connor McGovern going down last week.
Which sets up another matchup. With the Cowboys struggling on the offensive line in front of quarterback Cooper Rush's second NFL start and the Bengals coming off a five-turnover game now playing the NFL's defending turnover kings, this could be an old fashioned Big 12 slugfest of running backs.
Since Oklahoma's Joe Mixon came into the league in 2017 and joined the Bengals, he's got the third most rushes in the NFL (1,131) while the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott has the most with 1,338. Elliott (5,807) and Mixon (4,646) are second and fifth most, respectively, in yards. Elliott backup Tony Pollard is a change-of-pace guy while Samaje Perine is more in the big back mold of the starter Mixon.
The Cowboys are going to find tough sledding. The Bengals' fifth-best run defense last season picked up where it left off in the opener. Last week's stone job of Steelers running back Najee Harris on 10 carries for 23 yards has them seventh already.
With the Bengals coaches preaching more caution after Burrow's career-high four interceptions, a stepped-up running game could be the way to go against the defense with last year's interception leader (cornerback Trevon Diggs' 11) and with the best takeaway differential (plus-14) in the NFL.
The Cowboys cornerback opposite Diggs, Anthony Brown, has been solid but with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn playing man coverage about half the time, that could bode well for the Bengals with wide receiver Tee Higgins expected to play after missing more than half the opener with a concussion. Higgins goes 6-4, Brown 5-11 and gave up seven catches on nine targets for 140 yards last week against the Bucs.
The third phase, special teams, hides another big faceoff. Bengals rookie long snapper Cal Adomitis makes his NFL debut against an active, changing Dallas front that blocked three punts last season. Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has spent the week projecting which big linemen are going to challenge the 6-2, 238-pound Adomitis. Not small. But not as big as the injured 6-5, 250-pound Clark Harris. Simmons' message has always been the long snapper's top priority next to delivering the ball is blocking.
Defense and special teams, right? That should help ease things for Burrow because this thing is going to come down to him outscoring Rush without the turnovers. Even with Dak Prescott the Cowboys have yet to score a touchdown this season and in his one NFL start in five seasons Rush generated 20 points.
Burrow was made for gritty bounce-back road games like this one. According to Bengals.com's Kyle Williams, prior to last week's game the Bengals had thrown multiple interceptions in a game nine times in the four-seasons of head coach Zac Taylor. In six instances, the next week the Bengals didn't throw an interception. Burrow has four of those multi-interception games and has responded with a 3-1 record and a 10-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the next games.
This one has all the feel of last year's absolute must game in Las Vegas. Not that this is that much of a must because it's so early, but the Bengals were coming off their bye at 5-4, like seemingly everyone else in the AFC, including the Raiders. Burrow had two weeks to simmer on the 41-16 loss to Cleveland in which he had no touchdowns and two interceptions, one a pick-six on the first drive.
Starting to sound familiar? Patient Joe went out to Vegas and game managed a beauty, 32-13, that sent them on their way to the Super Bowl. He threw for just 148 yards, but tore the Raiders to pieces completing 20 of 29 take-what-you-give-me passes while Mixon had a career-high 30 carries for 123 yards.
How about Encore Joe?