The last quarter of the season will be a challenging one for a rising Cincinnati Bengals team perhaps destined to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years.
The last quartet of games for the Bengals begins Sunday with a visit from the Dallas Cowboys, another team hoping to break into the postseason mix. Cincinnati, which has road games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and a home tilt with Baltimore remaining on the schedule, is riding a season-high four-game winning streak after losing four in a row.
Cincinnati hasn't been to the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1981-82 and pulled off a win at San Diego last week. The Bengals scored the only points in the second half with 10 during the decisive fourth quarter in a 20-13 victory over the Chargers which saw quarterback Andy Dalton run for a score and throw for another. Dalton rebounded from a pair of interceptions, one that was returned for a score, and his six-yard TD scamper with less than five minutes to go sealed the deal.
The Bengals forced two turnovers in the final few minutes of the game to squelch San Diego's plans of making a comeback. They also recorded four sacks on the afternoon, including two from defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who was named AFC Player of the Week. The combination of late offense and steady defense kept the Bengals tied with Pittsburgh in the race for the AFC's second wild-card berth. Baltimore is two games ahead of both in the AFC North.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis appears optimistic his team can make a run as long as it sticks together.
"This is a win by a team that is rising," Lewis said. "We're good as a team. We're not really good singularly. We play well together. That's what I keep telling them. We're not very good by ourselves."
Lewis feels this team is better than last year's version which lost in the first round of the playoffs. He said overcoming a rough October is key and focusing on the little things will make a difference. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has done just that, having ripped off three straight 100-yard rushing performances, averaging 116.0 ypg in that time. The last Bengal to do that was Corey Dillon back in 1999 and Paul Robinson did it four straight times in 1968. Cincinnati is averaging 179.3 rushing yards per game in the last three and averaged just 93.7 ypg through the first nine weeks.
"I think everything has clicked. Finally, everyone is getting the job done, the right reads being made," Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler said. "We had to rely so much on our pass game early, and defenses could just focus on that area more. But now that that's going, it really helps open everything up and the offensive output has gone up, especially during the win streak."
The 7-5 Bengals will face a Cowboys defense that is 17th against the run (116.5 ypg) and was torched for 183 yards on the ground in Sunday night's win over the Eagles. Philadelphia rookie running back Bryce Brown had 169 yards and two scores on 24 carries, but fumbled late in the game to put Dallas in the driver seat. Cincinnati has seen improvement from Dalton lately with 10 TD passes to just two picks in the last four games, but should keep the pedal to the floor with the resurgent ground attack.
Green-Ellis has hit the 25-carry mark twice in the last three games (69 total) for a Bengals team aiming for its first five-game winning streak since Oct. 2 - Nov. 6 last season. Green-Ellis, who needs 115 yards for his second 1,000 season in his career, is in his first season with the club after spending time with New England. Lewis knows the importance of giving him enough carries.
"It's not always the yardage total that's most important," Lewis said. "When your back is carrying 25 times, it means that even though the yardage will vary, you're controlling the ball, controlling the clock, and keeping your defense off the field. As it shows for us that is very likely going to be a winning combination."
Dallas is in the hunt for one of the last wild card berths in the NFC, but needs some help along the way. The Cowboys have won three of their last four games and disposed of the Eagles Sunday night for the second time in less than a month.
The Cowboys needed a defensive touchdown from rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne, who scooped up a Brown fumble and raced 50 yards to put his team ahead for good. Claiborne, of course, was penalized several times in the first meeting with Philadelphia and kept his team alive in the playoff hunt. Claiborne was asked if his big play was payback against the Eagles, who were handed a 38-23 loss back on Nov. 11.
"I guess so," Claiborne said. "That's all part of the game. The penalties that I had the last game were all part of the game. I'm just fortunate and blessed and thankful we came out with a win."
The Cowboys are allowing almost 29 points (28.5) per game over the last four weeks and rank 21st in points allowed this season (23.3 ppg). At 6-6, they are tied with Washington at one game back of the New York Giants in the NFC East. Much like the Bengals, Dallas has a rough quarter of the season to go with matchups against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Washington.
Defense will be key for the Cowboys in keeping their faint postseason aspirations intact. Dalton has been sacked just five times in the past four weeks, but he has never faced linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Ware has to be accounted for at all times and has recorded 10 or more sacks in seven straight seasons. He has 18 1/2 sacks in the past 18 games against AFC foes for the Cowboys, whose defense has allowed only one touchdown in the last three games.
Dallas may struggle against Green-Ellis and is no better against the pass, sitting 10th in the league in yards allowed through the air (220.2). But with Claiborne's new-found confidence and knowing the playoffs are a possibility, it's apparent the Cowboys must bring their A-game to the Queen City.
The Cowboys have won two of three and four of their last six games against the Bengals. They recorded a 31-22 victory in the previous meeting on Oct. 5, 2008 as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw for three TDs. Dallas has won only one of the four games played in Cincinnati, last playing there in 2004.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Romo and the Dallas offense looms to continue its recent trend of scoring points on Sunday. Romo passed Hall of Famer Troy Aikman to become the Cowboys' all-time leader in touchdown passes and completed 22-of-27 passes against the Eagles for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 10-for-10 with 169 yards and three touchdowns in the second half for a rating of 150.5. He was asked how it feels to pass the three-time Super Bowl champion Aikman.
"Well, I think it's about winning games," Romo said. "Troy (Aikman), obviously, being a guy if you're in any discussion with him in anything, you're doing something right. Obviously, that feels very rewarding."
Romo has been intercepted only twice in the past five games and has thrown two TD passes or more five times this season. Dez Bryant has improved his game with the Cowboys in contention for a postseason run and has hauled in a touchdown pass in a career high four straight games. He has 23 career TD receptions and passed tight end Jay Novacek (22). Bryant can stretch the field when his head's in the game and already has a career-high 988 receiving yards on the season.
"Tony believes in me," Bryant said. "I want that to increase. It's all about not losing composure and being focused and just doing what's right. I feel like just me staying on top of my game makes a big difference."
Bryant has 29 catches for 475 yards and six TDs in the last four games. He will face former Cowboys draft pick and longtime defensive back Terrance Newman on Sunday. Bengals cornerback Adam Jones is another former Cowboy set to face his former team. Besides Dunlap, Dallas' offensive line has to prepare for defensive lineman Geno Atkins, who has a team-leading 9 1/2 sacks on the season. The Bengals must plan for Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and he returned to action after missing several games with a balky foot.
Murray could be the x-factor for the 'Boys on Sunday and the team is 8-0 when he carries the football at least 18 times in a game. He wasn't on the practice field Wednesday because of stiffness and should be ready to go by the end of the week.
"My entire body, after not feeling contact for six weeks, feels like you've been in a car crash," Murray said. "It's a good feeling, though. I actually like it, as weird as that sounds. I'm happy to be back on the field."
Cowboys talented tight end Jason Witten had 108 yards on six catches Sunday, but hasn't scored since Oct. 1 versus Chicago -- his only TD catch so far.
The Bengals have a pass attack of their own a deadly combination in Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. green has 1,107 receiving yards and 10 TDs this season, but hasn't hauled in a touchdown strike in the past two since having at least one in nine straight games from Sept. 16-Nov. 18. When Green-Ellis is not contributing and having success, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham could serve as a dynamic duo on Sunday.
"We have to continue to do better in every way," Lewis said. "We have the ball go off our hands for an interception ... can't have that. We have to make sure we play with great energy all the way through. We have to do a better job, and our passing game has to continue to improve."
Dallas is 10th in passing yards allowed (220.2 ypg) and allowed Eagles rookie quarterback Nick Foles to pass for 251 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Foles did not throw an interception and was sacked once by linebacker Victory Butler. That has to change Sunday, otherwise Dalton will be given too much time in the pocket which allows the receivers to get open and the quarterback to improvise.
It's a must-win situation for both playoff-hopeful teams on Sunday and unfortunately one has to lose. This game will be determined by how well each quarterback plays and right now Romo has the edge. With a perfect second half versus the Eagles and his name finally in the Cowboys' record books, Romo will get it done with another 300-yard performance and multiple touchdown passes. Cincinnati will keep it close, though, and a loss Sunday won't be as detrimental as it would if the Cowboys were to falter.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 23, Bengals 17