Welcome to the NFL's "dress rehearsal."
Critics are always lightning quick to call the preseason meaningless, but Week 3 is about as close to the real thing as you can get. Teams follow the same practice and travel schedule as they do during the regular season, and most healthy starters will likely get the entire first half to get into more of a rhythm.
In what will be the best preview of the regular season we've seen yet, the Cincinnati Bengals vs. Dallas Cowboys figures to easily be one of the most compelling games of the week.
Coming off their best season since 2005, the Bengals are a trendy pick to win the always-tough AFC North and make a deep run into January. We know how explosive the Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection can be, especially with another year of experience, but the addition of Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard will only make Jay Gruden's offense more dynamic.
The Geno Atkins-anchored defense, which finished in the top 10 in yards and points allowed last season, should also be improved with James Harrison and Terence Newman stepping on.
On the other side of the gridiron you have the Cowboys, who will be looking to avoid their longest playoff drought since the late 1980s.
They aren't nearly as solid throughout the depth chart as the Bengals, but the 'Boys are oozing with talent at the skill positions, and if they get the interior of that offensive line figured out, they will undoubtedly be players in the NFC East.
Let's take a closer look at this intriguing—and far from meaningless—preseason battle.
When: Saturday, Aug. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (formerly Cowboys Stadium), Arlington, Texas
Live Stream: NFL Preseason Live
Spread: Dallas Cowboys (-2.5), according to Covers
LT Andrew Whitworth, Knee, Questionable
WR A.J. Green, Knee, Questionable
WR Andrew Hawkins, Ankle, Out
DL Carlos Dunlap, Concussion, Out
DT Larry Black, Ankle, Out (IR)
RB Lance Dunbar, Foot, Out
WR Cole Beasley, Foot, Questionable
DL L.P. LaDouceur, Undisclosed, Questionable
DL Anthony Spencer, Knee, Out
DL Tyrone Crawford, Achilles, Out
Click here for a list of players on the IR
Bengals Player to Watch: Giovani Bernard, RB
The rookie out of North Carolina is set to split carries with BenJarvus Green-Ellis initially, but in terms of skill set, it shouldn't be long before Bernard receives the majority of the touches in Marvin Lewis' backfield.
Essentially, Gio is the exact opposite of a Geo.
He is fast. He is electrifying. He is elusive. He can change direction on a dime and accelerate away from defenders in an instant. He's versatile, showing the ability to return kicks, catch passes out of the backfield and, most importantly, pass-block.
The Law Firm is a bruiser—the thunder to Bernard's lightning—and will continue to get the short-yardage carries, but Bernard has a much higher ceiling in terms of being one of the most galvanizing backs in the league.
In two preseason games so far, the 21-year-old has taken 17 carries for 65 yards and two touchdowns and caught another four for 38.
As he continues to get more comfortable within the offense, he will be enthralling to watch.
Cowboys Player to Watch: The Run Game
OK, so it's not an actual player, but the run game will be crucial to Dallas' success this season.
We know what Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten are capable of in the passing game. The often-criticized QB threw for nearly 5,000 yards last season. And while Bryant entered elite WR territory while playing hurt, Witten had one of the most productive seasons of his great career, and Austin nearly tallied 1,000 yards in a secondary role.
But the 'Boys need some versatility to their attack. They finished 30th in the NFL in yards per carry and 31st in total rushing yards.
That needs to change—take legend Roger Staubach's word for it, via ESPN's Tim McMahon:
"Last year, if you looked at the Super Bowl, those guys had running backs over 1,000 yards," Staubach said. "[Romo] doesn't complain. He doesn't blame it on anybody, but he needs some help up front at times. The running game has got to be better than [31st] in the league, but Tony just does his job. He makes plays. He's got a strong arm, and he just does a lot of good things out there [that] only a few quarterbacks in the league that can do.
"It's a team effort, too. I can't take credit for those great teams that I had. It was because I had a running game, I had a good offensive line, I had a lot of good things working for me. But you've got to be good yourself. Tony is a franchise quarterback."
In the Cowboys' three preseason games—they played in the Hall of Fame Game before Week 1—they have run 70 times for 284 yards. That's a solid average of 4.01 yards per carry, but if you take out the Hall of Fame Game in which many starters didn't play much (if at all), that drops down to 3.12 per carry (114 yards on 36 carries).
This will be the best opportunity to gauge exactly where Dallas' running game is at. There are lots of important pieces, but pay close attention to DeMarco Murray, rookie center Travis Frederick and Doug Free, who is playing at guard for the first time in his life.
It's nearly impossible to predict games like this, but with Green likely suiting up and Atkins potentially getting an entire half to go up against Dallas' uncertain offensive line, I'm hard-pressed not to take the Bengals.
The 'Boys will keep it close at home, though.
Cincinnati 20, Dallas 17
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