What should have been a Bengals win hopefully will not end up defining their season.
All it takes is one drive: One drive to win or lose, one drive to cement a day's worth of good football or make it all for naught. For the Cincinnati Bengals, that one drive did not go in their favor—instead, it resulted in a last-second one-point loss to the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
Throughout Sunday's game, the Bengals handled the Cowboys much as they had their previous four opponents, all of whom they beat. On defense, the Bengals' line controlled every move of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and held their rushing game to just 49 total yards on 24 attempts. Romo was sacked three times and picked off once, and Dallas receiver Dez Bryant was a non-factor until his fourth-quarter touchdown.
But when the Bengals gave the ball back to the Cowboys with 3:44 left and a two-point lead, they couldn't close out the game. Instead, they allowed a 13-play, 50-yard Cowboys drive that was capped off by a last-second 40-yard Dan Bailey field goal, marking Cincinnati's first loss since the first week of November.
It wasn't a flawless game for the Bengals in the 56 minutes of play before the final Cowboys drive, but it was close. The Bengals converted 11 of their 19 total third downs, had 146 total yards of rushing offense on just 20 carries and quarterback Andy Dalton completed 20 of his 33 passes, for 206 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
What hurt them, ultimately, was the one touchdown they gave up to Bryant in a rare moment of letting their defensive guard down, as well as the eight penalties they committed, for 70 total yards, that helped extend two Cowboys drives.
It was a pass-heavy affair for Dallas, considering that they couldn't get their run game going (despite a second-quarter DeMarco Murray rushing score). Romo completed 25 of his 43 pass attempts, for 286 total yards, a touchdown and an interception, and the Bengals were able to pick up on his plans throughout much of the game. Bryant had no first-half receptions, tight end Jason Witten was held to only four catches on the day and he served as the Cowboys' best receiving target, though he had only 62 total yards.
The issue was that the Cowboys defense was also aware that the Bengals would more than likely seek to take to the skies for their scores as well, and their ability to contain Cincinnati's most dangerous receiver, A.J. Green, is a main reason why the Bengals could only manage six second-half points. Drops, too, didn't help their cause, either.
Green ended the day with just three catches on his eight targets, for 44 yards. Dalton had to rely instead on newly anointed No. 2 receiver Marvin Jones, who caught three passes for 45 yards (and added 37 rushing yards on a single end-around play) and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who was targeted eight times, with six receptions for 44 yards and a score.
With Green out of play for Dalton, he was sacked five times, most of them because he couldn't find anyone open before being hit. The Cowboys played the Bengals' passing offense much as the Bengals played the Cowboys', and the results were remarkably similar—the only difference ended up being that final drive.
To shake off the Bengals' pass rush in the final drive, Romo relied on short passing and handoffs to Murray, which allowed him to get the ball out quickly, make small gains, eat clock and catch the defense ultimately off guard. Anticipating deep passes—a touchdown strike, rather than a methodical drive ending in a field goal—made Cincinnati's defense less aware of what was happening, until they found themselves in their own territory, watching Bailey ready himself for the kick.
Drives like that make what happened before them inconsequential, which is why few will remember how Geno Atkins furthered his case for why he should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year, while everyone will recall that it was a final field-goal drive that broke the Bengals' win streak at four.
That drive could also be a deciding factor when it comes to whether or not the Bengals reach the postseason.
Fortunately for Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh Steelers (and Baltimore Ravens) also lost this week, but the Indianapolis Colts furthered their case for a wild-card berth with a 27-23 win over the Tennessee Titans. With the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers all losing, the Ravens have clinched a playoff berth, but not the divisional title, making it technically a three-team race at present for two postseason spots.
The hope is that this game doesn't serve as a microcosm of the entire Bengals season—a strong showing that becomes a footnote, because it doesn't result in success.