By Dwain Price
For Andy Dalton, Sunday turned out to be one of those triumphant homecomings fit for a king.
Dalton spent his first nine seasons in the NFL quarterbacking the Cincinnati Bengals, but returned to Cincinnati on Sunday and guided the Dallas Cowboys to a lopsided 30-7 victory over the Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium. The win padded the Cowboys’ record to 4-9 and kept alive their slim playoff hopes.
With just three games left in the regular season, the Cowboys will be eliminated from the playoff picture if they lose one of their remaining three games against the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles or New York Giants, or if the Washington Football Team (6-7) emerge victorious in one of their final three games against the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers or the Eagles.
While playing for Cincinnati and setting several of the franchise’s individual records, Dalton was a three-time Pro Bowl player and also led the Bengals to five playoff appearances. So, returning to the place where he is so beloved meant a lot to Dalton, who proceeded to deliver for the Cowboys just as he had so many times for the Bengals.
“Yeah, this one was special,” said Dalton, who signed a contract with the Cowboys over the offseason. “It feels good to come back to a place that I was for a long time to win. Like I said, it just felt good.”
Overall, Dalton completed 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. That includes a 7-yarder to Tony Pollard that sealed the game with1:42 remaining.
“This is definitely special for him and I made no bones about it,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He wanted to win this game, and more importantly everybody in this locker room wanted to win it for him.”
Dalton was one of three players named as the captain for the Cowboys for Sunday’s game, and he also gave the final pre-game talk to his teammates. Those same teammates showered him with water when he entered the locker room after the game.
“I got water thrown on me,” Dalton said, “and everybody was excited.”
In addition to doling out praises to Dalton, the Cowboys were overly excited about the play of their defense. Much maligned throughout the season for their inability to force turnovers or stop anyone from piling up a bunch of points, the Cowboys actually played like gangbusters in forcing three turnovers on the Bengals’ first three possessions.
And in the Cowboys’ world, collecting three turnovers in a game is considered a tsunami of turnovers. Particularly for a team that entered Sunday’s contest with a minus 13 turnover deficit.
The Cowboys turned those turnovers into a 17-0 second-quarter lead – their largest lead in any game this season – capped when Dalton completed a massive 15-play, 88-yard drive by firing an 11-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper. In short, the Cowboys went into Sunday’s game scoring just 28 points off turnovers all season, and they added 17 more points before the first half was in the history books.
“Winning the turnover battle was clearly a big part of our victory,” McCarthy said. “I think on a number of fronts it was a very gratifying victory, because of just the number of things that went on during the game on the sidelines, particularly on defense.”
This turned out to be the fewest amount of points the Cowboys have allowed since they walloped the Miami Dolphins, 31-6, in the third game of last season. Meanwhile, the defense’s biggest glory occurred when defensive end Aldon Smith picked up a fumble and galloped 78 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 6:05 to go in the first quarter.
It also was the longest touchdown return of a fumble by the Cowboys’ player since Greg Ellis ran a fumble back 98 yards for a touchdown against Arizona in 1999.
“I know that I’m really fast, so as soon as I picked it up I just knew that it was just going to be impossible for me to get caught,” Smith said. “Guys were giving me a lot of stuff — they say I looked like I was slow. But I thought I was pretty fast.”
Other than the solid workmanlike play of their defense, the Cowboys didn’t really do anything spectacular on offense against the Bengals. They finished the game with just 272 total yards and only 16 first downs, and running back Ezekiel Elliott got bogged down yet again as he collected 48 yards rushing on 12 carries.
“We won that football game and those have been hard to come by this year, so we’re going to go celebrate this and go get back to work,” Elliott said. “We definitely feel some momentum.”
Whatever momentum the Cowboys are feeling, it’s the type of momentum they’ve been searching for all season as they have yet to do something as simple as win more than one game in a row this year.
“We took a step (Sunday) as a football team,” McCarthy said. “We need to build off the way we played (Sunday), the energy we played, particularly the finish.
“It’s obviously a fun locker room and definitely a win that we needed.”
Next up for the Cowboys is a 12-noon kickoff on Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington against the 49ers. The stakes are high and, when they peel back the curtains, the Cowboys know what needs to be done.
“We did our part (against the Bengals) and we just got to keep focusing on us and keep finding ways to win and we’ll see how this whole thing shakes out,” said Dalton, who received the game ball afterwards from McCarthy. “The division isn’t over yet, and for us we just got to handle our business.”