Dallas Cowboys: Andy Dalton
We talked about trading up (I don’t see it happening), selecting Anthony Barr or Kony Ealy if both are available at No. 16 (Barr), taking a chance on Dominique Easley, the extra time leading up to the draft (hate it) and my all-time favorite Cowboy.
If you want to read the whole chat, click here.
I was also asked about drafting a quarterback.
R Lank, Md.: With romo 1 bad hit, and he's finished along with the uncertainty of orton why not draft a decent qb. at romo's age along with his injuries would u say that a high risk paying him that kind of money. I mean like u and (Jacques) said why pay age?
Todd Archer: When it comes to quarterbacks and left tackles, paying age doesn't seem as problematic for a lot of teams. I understand what you're saying about drafting a quarterback, but I don't see them going after a guy in the first two rounds. Maybe the third but more likely fourth or fifth. When you're picking a guy there, it's a projection more than a known commodity. Honestly, I think when Romo is done, whenever that is, the Cowboys will draft his replacement the following year and go with the guy.
Let me go a little deeper. For the last three or four years this has been a common question either because fans want the Cowboys to move on from Tony Romo or start the process of finding his replacement before it’s too late.
I’ve been a fan of selecting a quarterback every year, similar to the way Ron Wolf worked the draft with the Green Bay Packers. Clearly the Cowboys don’t share that belief, and I’ve just now come to the realization that when Romo’s career is over, then they will go ahead and find their next starter.
They don’t believe it makes sense to draft a quarterback, give him time to develop and then hand him the keys, say, the way the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers when they decided to move on from Brett Favre. It’s a risky strategy, but it’s what the Cowboys did after Troy Aikman retired.
They drafted Quincy Carter in the second round, surprisingly, and he won the job. They cut Tony Banks in camp so as there was no doubt Carter would be the guy. It didn’t work, although Carter did help the Cowboys to the playoffs in 2003.
Finding the next franchise quarterback took time for the Cowboys, and they got lucky in Romo. They looked to baseball and got Carter, Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson. They looked at vets like Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe.
If you look at quarterbacks now, teams draft them and play them. Andy Dalton was a Day 1 starter with the Cincinnati Bengals after he was picked in the second round. Russell Wilson won the starting job with the Seattle Seahawks as a third round pick. Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck were No. 1 picks and starters from the beginning.
Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins), Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), E.J. Manuel (Buffalo Bills), Geno Smith (New York Jets) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) have been walk-in starters.
So whenever Romo is done – two, three or four years from now – that’s when I think the Cowboys go all in for a quarterback in the draft. And if (remember it’s still an if) that is the case, then there is a strong argument to take another offensive lineman at No. 16 next month.
With Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Offensive Lineman X, the Cowboys would have three first-round picks to protect an early-round quarterback. That would be a good way to break in a young quarterback. He would not be under siege behind a bad line.
Will this happen? Who knows, but it’s what I think could be the case.
With that we give our weekly Stock Report.
Phillip Tanner. The No. 3 running back moved up the depth chart with Lance Dunbar (foot) out with his injury. When DeMarco Murray was benched after two possessions, Tanner took over and did a solid job in the running game. Tanner rushed 14 times for 39 yards, and while he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, he proved his worth to the Cowboys' front office with his performance.
B.W. Webb. The rookie cornerback has improved since the Hall of Fame game. Saturday night, he picked up an interception off an Andy Dalton pass in the middle of the field. Each week, Webb is showing he can play in the slot and as an outside cornerback, and he's not afraid to mix it up with receivers.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Cowboys had a hard time getting much of an advantage at Cowboys Stadium with a 17-15 regular-season record in the $1.2 billion home.
Playing under the AT&T Stadium name for the first time, the Cowboys were able to overcome a tepid start to beat Cincinnati 24-18.
What it means: The Cowboys got what they wanted in their final showing of the preseason from their regulars on offense and defense.
The Cowboys have not played their starters in the last preseason game since 2006, and Jason Garrett will not want to risk the likes of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Brandon Carr on Thursday against Houston.
To avoid their first losing preseason since 2001, however, the Cowboys will have to beat the Texans.
First-team offense gets in end zone: In their first five drives of the preseason, the Romo-led offense failed to get in the end zone. They started 0-for-2 on Saturday before Bryant took matters into his own hands with five catches on a 12-play drive that ended with Romo hitting Bryant on a bullet fade over cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
The Cowboys closed the first half with an eight-play drive that covered 52 yards with Miles Austin being the featured target. Austin had a 23-yard gain on a third-and-6 and closed the drive with a 12-yard score going across the back of the end zone for a Romo throw.
Offensive line moves: For the fourth time in four preseason games, the Cowboys rolled out a different combination on the offensive line with Doug Free playing right guard, Jermey Parnell at right tackle and Mackenzy Bernadeau at left guard. Only left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick played in their original positions.
Romo was sacked on the first play of the game for an 8-yard loss and the running game averaged only 2.5 yards per carry in the first half. The first-team line played a series into the third quarter before calling it a night.
Will this be the combination the Cowboys roll out for the Sept. 8 opener against the New York Giants? Possibly, if Ronald Leary is unable to return from surgery to his right knee. The Cowboys are confident Leary, who has never played in a game, can return in time, but they might choose to go with this grouping.
Defense continues to take it away: The offseason emphasis continued with two first-half takeaways from a defense that might bend but has yet to break.
For the third time in four preseason games, the Cowboys came up with a takeaway on their first drive of the game. Safety Barry Church poked the ball free from wide receiver Marvin Jones and cornerback Brandon Carr came up with the loose ball at the Dallas 4.
In the second quarter, rookie cornerback B.W. Webb came up with a pick of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on a seam throw to receiver Mohamed Sanu. Undrafted safety Jeff Heath forced a fumble in the third quarter.
The first-team defense did not allow a touchdown in three preseason appearances totaling roughly three quarters.
Digital board gets plunked: In the first football game at AT&T Stadium, on Aug. 21 2009, Tennessee’s A.J. Trapasso hit the center-hung digital board with a punt. It was not hit again by a punt until Saturday, when Cowboys punter Chris Jones hit it in the first quarter.
There have been 274 regular-season punts at AT&T Stadium since its opening that have not hit the board.
It might bear watching this year.
On Jones’ re-kick, Cincinnati’s Brandon Tate scored a 75-yard touchdown for the Bengals’ only first-half points.
Who didn’t play: Cornerback Morris Claiborne (knee) missed his fourth straight preseason game -- and third because of injury -- but the hope is that he can practice some next week and possibly play in Thursday’s finale against Houston. WR Cole Beasley (foot), RB Lance Dunbar (foot), S Matt Johnson (foot), S Eric Frampton (calf), LB Brandon Magee (concussion), LB Ernie Sims (groin), OL Ryan Cook (back), OG Ronald Leary (knee), OG Nate Livings (knee) and DE Anthony Spencer (knee) did not dress for the game.
What’s next?: The Cowboys will have to pare down their roster from 88 to 75 by Tuesday’s deadline, two days before they play their fifth and final preseason game of the summer. Former head coach Wade Phillips (2007-10) makes his return to AT&T Stadium on Thursday as Houston’s defensive coordinator. The final cut to 53 players is Aug. 31.
But does that mean the Cowboys won't draft a quarterback for the future? Or that the Cowboys won't draft a quarterback this year?
The Cowboys have drafted 28 quarterbacks in franchise history, producing two Hall of Famers -- Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. They have drafted two in the first round -- Craig Morton and Aikman -- and three total since Aikman retired in 2000.
One of the quarterbacks drafted since Aikman's retirement, Isaiah Stanback, was moved to wide receiver.
The Cowboys don't have an immediate need for a quarterback, but Romo will be 33 in Week 1 and backup Kyle Orton (30) is signed only through 2014.
The quarterback class is considered weak this year, but there are some intriguing names projected to go in the second and third rounds. Ryan Nassib, EJ Manuel, Tyler Wilson, Mike Glennon, Landry Jones and Tyler Bray are all projected to go in the middle rounds.
The perception is the Cowboys don't need a quarterback because they locked up Romo and have other areas of need (offensive and defensive line, safety and running back). But there's nothing wrong with adding to the position with young talent. Stephen McGee was a fourth-round pick in 2009 who was groomed to be a No. 2, but he never developed.
You could blame McGee or the coaching staff for the lack of progress.
Since 2000, NFL teams have drafted 14 quarterbacks in the fourth round, with the most notable names being Orton and David Garrard.
However, notable second-round selections since 2000 are Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Kolb and Drew Brees. Brees has won a Super Bowl and Kaepernick played in one this year.
Quality quarterbacks can be found in the early portions of the draft and even the middle rounds -- Russell Wilson and Matt Schaub were third-round picks -- but making that commitment to the future is key for any NFL team.
While the Cowboys do have other needs, getting a quarterback this April could make just as strong a statement as giving Romo $55 million guaranteed.
|Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss Tony Romo's potential contract extension, the Cowboys' plans for Anthony Spencer and how Joe Flacco's final month of the season impacted the Cowboys' offseason.
It's the second game in a row in which Carr has come up with a significant turnover. His second-quarter interception of Andy Dalton in Week 14 set up a touchdown drive that tied the game at 10-10 at a point when the Cowboys had not done anything offensively. Carr has been inconsistent in his first season in Dallas after signing a $51 million free-agent contract in the offseason to help stabilize the secondary. He appears to be playing better during this critical time at which the Cowboys have won five of six games to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East.
Carr is the first Cowboys player to win an NFC Defensive or Offensive Player of the Week award this season. Punt returner Dwayne Harris was NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 10, and Bailey won that award a week later.
The different zone blitz looks that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer gave the Cowboys had them confused. After the Cowboys’ first drive, in which Tony Romo completed 5-of-6 passes, Romo had only one drive in which he completed more than one pass in the next six drives.
The Cowboys could not block Geno Atkins. Every offensive lineman had at least one breakdown in pass protection and they could not get a push up front.
On the eighth drive, which started at the Dallas 2, something started to click. It started with a slant to Miles Austin on five-man pressure. It was the first completion the Cowboys had against five-man pressure in the game as they started out 0 for 6. That drive ended with a punt, but it gave the offense a template off which to work on their final two drives.
On the ninth drive, Romo and Austin hooked up again when the Bengals came with five defenders. Romo was hit as he threw it, but he waited just long enough for Austin to clear the second window to make the grab on the run. The Cowboys had 15 yards and a first down. On the next play Dez Bryant had his 27-yard touchdown.
It came after Bryant made the wrong route read, going behind the cornerback on his crossing route, but Romo had enough time to wait for Bryant coming across the middle and threaded a throw in which Bryant was able to sprint into the end zone.
On that ninth drive the Cowboys found some success with 11 personnel runs (three wide receivers). On the 10th drive, DeMarco Murray was able to get the crucial first down on third and 5 on a 11-personnel run, bouncing to the right against an eight-man box. Dwayne Harris did just enough on the corner on the outside for Murray to cut inside to lunge for the first down with a defender on his back.
Romo’s second biggest completion of the drive (the first was the third-down throw to Jason Witten) came when Zimmer brought five guys on first-and-10 from the Dallas 42 and he waited for a crossing Bryant for 9 yards.
After starting 0 for 6 against five-man pressure, Romo completed three of his final four vs. Zimmer’s pressure.
Romo completed 19-of-28 passes against four-man pressure, 2-of-3 against six-man pressure and missed on both of his throws on three-man pressure. He had one goal-line throw.
How was the Cowboys’ offense given a chance to make the comeback? The defense finally made plays when it needed to after failing to do so in six previous games.
Rob Ryan’s unit has been criticized and deservedly so, injuries or no injuries, but DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer came up with the two biggest plays in the fourth quarter.
Ware’s 3-yard sack of Andy Dalton came on third-and-12 when Ryan chose to rush three guys. And everybody hates that, right? Running back Brian Leonard did not get a good enough chip on Ware, giving the Pro Bowl linebacker the chance to sprint by right tackle Andre Smith and track down Dalton for the first stop.
Spencer’s sack came when he lined up at inside linebacker in the dime defense. I wonder if he was there because Ernie Sims was hurt. Most of the time when he lined up at inside linebacker in recent weeks, he dropped into an underneath zone. On this third-and-4 play, he was able to beat guard Kevin Zeitler up the middle to get into Dalton’s face quickly.
Jason Hatcher’s play in the final two drives should also be recognized. He had two pressures and drew a holding penalty.
|Anthony Spencer talks about how the Cowboys adjusted during the game for a big win in Cincinnati.
During a scramble by Andy Dalton, which eventually turned into a sack by Anthony Spencer, Ryan and several of the defensive coaches complained to the officials about holding.
Ryan got into a debate, if you will, with Bengals left tackle Andre Smith near the Cowboys' sideline. Smith apparently said something to the Cowboys bench, but after Ryan yelled something back the official standing next to Ryan threw the flag.
Normally, the Cowboys, like most NFL teams, have a trainer or someone on the strength and conditioning staff to keep coaches within a designated area of the sidelines or sometimes off the field.
With Ryan yelling, no other coach or staff member tried to pull him back. Ryan was so upset, it appeared he didn't get a chance to make a defensive call for the next play.
"There were a couple of times we felt like when their quarterback moved in the pocket our guys were getting held, and as a reaction on the sidelines, guys were emotional about that," coach Jason Garrett said. "One of their players came over and kind of hollered at our sidelines and Rob hollered back. We can’t do that. We have to keep our emotions in check. That was the scenario there about a potential call and their players reaction to us and Rob had a reaction. That felt like it was justified to call that penalty there."
The Cowboys sideline, at that time, was a mess with several coaches yelling and screaming. Given the events of the weekend, it's understandable that things can get tense.
Players and coaches talk smack to each other from time to time because, to be honest, it's an emotional game. But Ryan needed to pull back here.
"I think the bigger issue was he was out on the field," Garrett said. "That was the explanation they gave me."
The Cowboys' running game never got in a good rhythm, gaining only 49 yards on 24 carries. The Cowboys could not block Bengals DT Geno Atkins, who had three tackles for losses in addition to his sack and three quarterback hurries. But there were two big bright spots for DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 53 yards on 21 carries. He went over the top of the pile for a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter and made a tough, 6-yard run on third-and-5 with 1:17 remaining in the game to ensure that the Cowboys would have a chance to win as time expired.
It wasn't necessarily a pretty day for Tony Romo and the Cowboys' passing game. The Bengals' front four got consistent pressure, sacking Romo three times and forcing several hurried throws, a handful of which Romo is fortunate weren't picked off. The Cowboys' starting receivers were nonfactors for most of the game. But Romo finished with 268 yards on 25-of-43 passing and threw a 27-yard touchdown to Dez Bryant. Romo was at his best while leading the Cowboys' comeback, completing 11 of 15 passes for 128 yards and the score during the fourth quarter.
Why didn't the Bengals run the ball more often? That's a question that will be asked a lot in Cincinnati. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had three consecutive 100-yard games entering the day, carried only 12 times. He gained 89 yards, an average of 7.4 per carry. Receiver Marvin Jones gained 37 yards on an end-around when a play-fake to Green-Ellis fooled the Dallas defense. It's a mystery why Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden didn't opt to test the middle of a Dallas defense missing its top two nose tackles and top two inside linebackers much more often.
The Bengals helped the Cowboys' cause with some drops, including a couple of uncharacteristic ones by star receiver A.J. Green, including one play that should have been a touchdown. Nevertheless, the Cowboys contained Green (three catches for 44 yards) and quarterback Andy Dalton (20-of-33 for 206 yards and a touchdown with one interception). Cornerback Brandon Carr's 37-yard interception return, which came after he dropped into a zone and perfectly read Dalton's eyes on a throw to Green, set up the Cowboys' first touchdown. The Cowboys had a season-high five sacks, including two by Anthony Spencer.
Punter Brian Mooman had a miserable day, averaging 33.0 yards per punt. His two shanked punts -- 23-and 29-yarders -- set up a pair of Cincinnati field goals. Moorman did bust out of the yips to boom his last punt 49 yards, pinning the Bengals inside the 10 on their first possession of the fourth quarter, a critical shift in field position. The Cowboys got cute on their only kickoff return, with Dwayne Harris faking a handoff to Dez Bryant. That resulted in a 14-yard return that might have been a big play if not for a quick whistle that ruled Harris down. Dan Bailey calmly delivered by booting the 40-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Forget about X's and O's for a moment. This wasn't about Jason Garrett's game plan. It was about his ability to hold a team together after an awful tragedy. Garrett handled a horrible situation about as well as humanly possible, deftly balancing delicate emotions with the cold, hard reality that the Cowboys had to be ready to play a game that was critical to their playoff hopes. The Cowboys showed tremendous poise and character by rallying from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win. That's a testament to the mental toughness that Garrett has instilled in his team.
Against Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, the New York Giants, Carolina and Baltimore, the defense allowed offenses to either re-take leads or extend leads late in games.
On Sunday, the Cowboys made two big stops in the fourth quarter. DeMarcus Ware ended one drive with a sack of Andy Dalton that was followed by Dez Bryant’s 27-yard touchdown catch.
With 6:35 to play, the Cowboys needed another stop. The Bengals picked up a first down on the first two plays of the drive, but were able to force a third-and-4 three plays later. With their defense beaten up with more injuries (Morris Claiborne and Ernie Sims were out), Anthony Spencer came up with a 10-yard sack of Dalton to force a punt.
The Cowboys got the ball back with 3:44 to play and were able to win it on Dan Bailey’s 40-yard field goal attempt with no time left.
“We have a lot of different guys playing and you guys hear me say this all the time, we don’t talk about injuries, but there were a lot of different combinations out there playing,” coach Jason Garrett said. “That’s a good offense. They can run the football. They can throw the football. They’ve got some playmaking type guys. It wasn’t perfect but our guys just continued to hang in there, particularly when the offense wasn’t doing a whole lot. They kept us in the ballgame and ultimately we were able to make a couple of drives to allow us to score some points to win the ballgame, but the defense did a great job over and over and over again of getting stops, getting us the ball back and giving us a chance.”
Here are some adjustments:
1. Press the wide receivers. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton is getting rid of the ball very quickly. There were a few throws where he let it go at 1.2 seconds, which makes it hard for defenders to reach him. One way the Cowboys can combat this is by pressing the wide receivers. The cornerbacks are playing zone defense, which allows Dalton to get rid of passes in front of the corners or in soft spots in the zone. The Cowboys need to press receivers A.J. Green and Brandon Tate. The Cowboys do have a turnover, an interception by Brandon Carr as Dalton scrambled out of the pocket. If the Cowboys continue to get pressure on Dalton, maybe he'll make another mistake.
2. Run the football. If this game gets out of hand in the second half then change things, but right now the Cowboys trail the Bengals by three. So keep running the ball. Dallas is using lots of three-receiver sets, which is nice, but run it with Murray, who has 10 carries for 21 yards with one touchdown. It seems the Cowboys' offensive line is getting a good push along the line of scrimmage and Murray is running better than last week. His score, a 1-yarder, came when he jumped up and pushed the ball over the goal line. Murray is cutting better across the field this week than in the Eagles game, his first after returning from a five-game absence from a sprained foot.
3. Find Dez Bryant. It's nothing strange to see the Cowboys' most explosive receiver not get a catch in the first half. Bryant was targeted twice; he dropped a pass on one targed, and Tony Romo threw one over his head on the other. It appeared to be a miscommunication on the second target. But in the second half, the Cowboys need to find Bryant. He's getting pressed at the line of scrimmage and the Bengals are also playing off him. He did get open on a slant on press coverage, so it's possible for him to become a weapon. Bryant finished the first half without a catch.
“I followed them," Dalton said of the Cowboys. "Growing up I didn't really have a team that was my team. I definitely followed them some. Just being from Texas, they're obviously one of the big teams in Texas. And for a while, they were the only team in Texas when I was growing up.”
Dalton, who played at TCU, and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo have gotten to know each other over the years. During the NFL lockout leading into Dalton’s rookie year, they got together a handful of times.
“He's a really good player,” Dalton said. “He does a lot of making guys miss in the pocket, moving around. He's one of the best at that -- improvising when things don't work exactly how you want them to.”
Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs last year and he has them in contention again this season. Like Romo, he has done a better job protecting the ball of late. He had at least one interception in the first eight games, but in Cincinnati’s four-game winning streak he has 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“He’s done a good job,” Romo said. “I’ve talked to Andy a few times in the offseason. He comes back. He’s around here. He’s a nice guy. He’s definitely got some ability, so he’s doing a really good job for them.”
Todd Archer - How has Terence Newman played in his first year for the Bengals?
He's stayed healthy, which will surprise some Cowboys fan.
Geoff Hobson - He's been their most durable corner and is having a very solid year starting opposite Leon Hall. They have allowed one TD passin their four-game winning streak, and they've held QBs to a 65.2 passer rating. Web sites from profootbalfocus.com to ESPN have graded him highly through the year. He says 70 percent of it is being re-united with Mike Zimmer.
TA - Let's stick with the former Cowboy theme and move on to Mike Zimmer. The Bengals defense is performing well and Zimmer really seems to have found a home there. How has he done it and do you think he can be a head coach somewhere one day?
GH - Vintage Zimmer. Tough vs. the run, no screw-ups, no big plays, make them think you're blitzing a lot when you're really not and when you do it is just full barrel. They've given up just five-plus 20 runs and none of 40. He's got his kind of corners, physical, smart, and they think he walks on water. Plus, he's really riding this defensive line. Has to be the best he's ever had. A lot of four-man pressures so he can toy with different coverages.
The guy will be a head coach, I'm convinced. His reputation is just too good around the league and there are just too many teams in trouble. Players love him.
TA - From afar, how do you see the similarities in the way Mike Brown and Jerry Jones run their teams as the only owner/general manager types in the NFL?
GH - Pretty damn close in the since both have the final say in football matters and both have refused to relent against withering criticism. The biggest difference is Jerry has other business interests while Mike's only gig is the Bengals. They also have polar opposite views of NFL economics. But they've got more in common than people think. Note neither has naming rights for their stadium.
TA - We saw Andy Dalton excel at TCU and he seems to be doing the same there. Is he a franchise quarterback or a notch just below that level?
GH - Good question. I think so, but it's hard to say he is right now when he's 0-5 vs. the Ravens and Steelers. But he got them to the playoffs as a rookie and has them in the hunt again, which speaks volumes of his ability and his ample intangibles. To me, he is one in the making with Montana-like bent with brains and touch passing. Just give me a few more fourth-quarter comebacks (five of his 16 wins, which is excellent) and a couple of big AFC North wins. But he's on his way.
TA - How good is A.J. Green?
GH - He'll be the greatest Bengal who ever touched the ball and the debate will be between him and Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz for the greatest Bengal ever. He catches everything, from crossing routes to 9 routes. He can run after the catch and he can power up like he's going up on an NBA backboard. Beast is an understatement
|Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says he's very impressed with Tony Romo and that Dez Bryant is starting to remind him of Michael Irvin.
Cincinnati (7-5) somehow went from becoming one of the most disappointing teams in the league to jumping back in the postseason hunt all in the same season. The Bengals are tied with Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the AFC, and they're two games behind the Ravens (9-3) in the AFC North race with four weeks remaining. It's been a remarkable turnaround for the Bengals, who had a 3-5 record on Nov. 4 after losing four straight games. The Bengals have since won four games in a row, and have done so in impressive style. Their margins of victory have been 18, 22, 24 and 7 points.
What has everyone learned from the Bengals' win streak? While the Bengals often make people regret making predictions about them, it's time to start taking the Bengals seriously. They're looking like a playoff team and they're playing like they have something to prove.
"This team is getting better each week," wide receiver A.J. Green said. "A lot of people said it was out of our reach to make the playoffs, but I feel like we have momentum on our side coming down the home stretch of the season."
There's not another team with more momentum on both sides of the ball. That includes teams that have already clinched a playoff spot like Houston, New England and Denver.
|Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says he's very impressed with Tony Romo and that Dez Bryant is starting to remind him of Michael Irvin.
Their defense is stonewalling teams from the end zone. The Bengals are allowing 10.5 points during the win streak and have given up one offensive touchdown in three weeks. Over the past four weeks, Cincinnati's D has four interceptions and 15 sacks.
There's also a different attitude with this team. It surfaced against the Raiders two games ago when offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was ejected in coming to the defense of quarterback Andy Dalton. In other words, these Bengals aren't going to be pushed around.
These young Bengals are growing up quickly. Dalton is among the best quarterbacks in getting the ball into the end zone. (His 24 touchdowns rank behind only Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.) Green is one of the most explosive wide receivers in the game. And defensive tackle Geno Atkins is the best player no one outside this division knows about.
“We control our destiny," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "We can only control what we can. That is preparing for the next game. Show up and win. Be disciplined. Play with the same intensity and effort that we have been playing with the past couple weeks. I think that is all the coaches can ask for.”
What the Bengals' coaches have asked for has changed throughout the season. Early last month, coach Marvin Lewis was challenging his team leaders, Dalton and Maualuga, to step up. A month later, Lewis sounds concerned about overconfidence.
Maybe that's why the Bengals needed a victory like the one in San Diego on Sunday. Cincinnati turned the ball over three times and trailed by three points with four minutes remaining. But, as the Bengals have done this season, they bounced back from adversity and escaped with a 20-13 win.
Still, Lewis doesn't want his players to feel satisfied by that performance.
"Break up the glee club because we've got to do better," Lewis said. "It wasn't good enough [on Sunday] -- in a lot of areas. Everybody is patting them on their backs about what they're doing. Well, we haven't done anything. We just got back to even, and now we have to move forward. These last four are what counts."
The Bengals' next two games are home against Dallas (6-6) and at Philadelphia (3-9). What likely will determine their playoff fate is their final two games: at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore.
This generation of Bengals -- Dalton, Green and other second-year or rookie players -- once again face their biggest obstacle. Since the start of the 2011 season, the Bengals are a combined 0-6 against the Ravens and Steelers, while they're 16-6 against the rest of the NFL.
Another sweep by Baltimore and Pittsburgh likely would eliminate Cincinnati from the postseason. The Bengals have to split with the Steelers because of tiebreaker implications.
Before the Bengals can become a playoff team again, they have to show they're a consistent team. The Bengals need two wins to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981 and '82.
“I think we are a far better football team than we were last year when we finished the season. That’s key," Lewis said. "We have to go prove that we’re better-equipped to finish out this last quarter of the season. That’s where we are now. We put ourselves back in position. We were able to overcome October, which was hard. We’ve done this by playing one snap at a time. We can’t lose sight of that."
By how they've turned around their season, the Bengals are suddenly a team to watch in December.