But what really stung was on third down, A.J. Green had the first of two huge drops, this being the one that really killed the Bengals.
The Cowboys lined up with two high safeties in man coverage, no doubt expecting another shot towards the back of the end zone with either Green or Gresham. They are lined up tight in the middle of the field, possibly expecting a post route from Gresham at tight end or Jones lined up tight to the line opposite. The Bengals have, from the bottom of the formation, Green, Hawkins and Gresham at tight end.
Dalton sends Brian Leonard out wide to the right, and when Ernie Sims follows him out that confirms the straight man coverage. The entire Cowboys secondary is playing off coverage, protecting the end zone.
This indicates that the Bengals’ best chance is to make something happen underneath with yards after the catch. Hawkins may seem like the best candidate, especially with some of his spectacular plays throughout the day, but Dalton sets up Green to take it in. Like a tunnel screen but downfield, every receiver goes downfield to block while Green uses Hawkins and his defender as a rub to free himself of his man.
Everything works to perfection against off-man coverage, and Green has a few running lanes that will likely lead him to paydirt with his speed and explosiveness. But he can taste the touchdown and tries to score before he even has the ball. In a game of missed chances, this one hurt the worst. At that point, the pendulum of momentum swung back to the Cowboys, never to shift back to the Bengals.
The Cowboys defense began to find holes in the Bengals interior line. Using the inexperience of the Bengals interior line against them, Ryan dialed up a few amoeba formations and stunts that had Clint Boling, Kevin Zeitler and Trevor Robinson on their heels. Even after reinserting Kyle Cook back at center, the Bengals continued to struggle against stand-up pass rushers and twists up the middle.
As a team that lost Chris Henry prematurely, the Cowboys were playing inspired football less than a full day after a horrendous tragedy late in the game. While the loss hurt the Bengals when they were in a position to gain ground towards the wild card race, the Bengals still control their own destiny.
Now the Steelers matchup looms even larger on the horizon, but Thursday night against the Eagles and the steadily improving Nick Foles is more important than it was Sunday morning.