CINCINNATI – A lot of Andy Dalton's friends and family are flying in for a game that has big interest back in his home state.
"I guess being from Texas, everybody's excited about this one," said the Bengals quarterback, who grew up in suburban Houston.
They're headed this way for a game that's pivotal to both teams' playoffs chances.
The Cowboys (6-6) have gotten into the NFC wild card race by winning three of their last four games. The Bengals (7-5) have run off four straight wins to get in position for an AFC wild card and, perhaps, a division title. Neither can afford a loss at this stage.
"It's kind of a prelude to the playoffs," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "Teams are going to turn it on and try their best to get into the (postseason) show, so you're going to get everybody's best every week."
A sign of the game's importance: Paul Brown Stadium will be sold out for the first time in the last three home games. A lot of those fans will be cheering for the Cowboys, who have made it exciting lately by putting up a lot of points. Dallas has scored 38, 23, 38 and 38 points in the last four games.
The Cowboys are one of four teams in the NFC tied at 6-6, one game behind Seattle for the last wild-card spot. Like the Bengals, the Cowboys started 3-5 and have recovered by putting together their best stretch of the season. They're one game behind the New York Giants for the NFC East lead, tied with Washington for second place.
The Cowboys finish the season at Washington.
"When you think about the East, it's always been down to the wire," linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "It's always been close. It's a brutal NFC East, grind 'em conference, division. It's going to come down to the wire.
"We just need to keep playing well, think about a game at a time and eventually hoping we get to the end."
That's the same approach the Bengals have taken while digging out of their 3-5 start. One difference: Cincinnati's defense has been much better over that span. The Bengals have scored 31, 28, 34 and 20 points during their four wins while holding opponents to 13 points or less.
As a result, Cincinnati is tied with Pittsburgh for the final wild card spot, although the Steelers won their first game this season. Both trail Baltimore by two games in the AFC North with four to play. Cincinnati ends the season at Pittsburgh and home against the Ravens.
"We've got to take care of our business and let everything else fall into place, but I think there's a chance," Dalton said. "Baltimore's in control of their destiny too. We'll see."
The defense has given up only one touchdown in the last three games and leads the NFL with 39 sacks. End Carlos Dunlap was the AFC's defensive player of the week for getting five tackles, two sacks and forcing two fumbles in a 20-13 win at San Diego. Tackle Geno Atkins leads all NFL interior linemen with 9½ sacks. End Michael Johnson has eight sacks.
"Everybody is getting to the quarterback," Dunlap said. "This week fortunately it was me. We're all just working in tandem. I feel like that's starting to pick up this season. We didn't start out the season the way we've wanted, but we've gotten better each week."
The Cowboys' biggest concern is stopping Cincinnati's running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has run for more than 100 yards in each of the last three, and will be trying to become the first Bengal to do it four games in a row since Paul Robinson in Cincinnati's inaugural season of 1968.
The Bengals signed Green-Ellis as a free agent from New England to replace Cedric Benson. The running game struggled in the first half of the season, but has finally found its stride.
"Physically the line is good up front, but he just has a good feel for running," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "I think anybody who's followed his career when he was in New England, he just seemed to make a lot of yards. He's certainly doing that in Cincinnati."
The Bengals have three links to the Cowboys, providing some interesting subplots. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was the coordinator in Dallas from 2000-06. Cornerback Terence Newman played there from 2003-11 before being released. Cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was traded to the Cowboys from Tennessee in 2008 and got waived in 2009.
Given the stakes, this one is more than personal.
"I want the game more because we need it," Jones said. "I don't want Dallas to win any game. I'm not a Dallas fan. I'm not cheering for no one. That's just how it is."
AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon in Irving, Texas, contributed to this report.
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