BY GEOFF HOBSON
IRVING, Texas _ The Bengals' long-time trouble spots at cornerback and left tackle haunted them here Sunday when the Cowboys scored 16 points on their first four possessions of the second half to take a 23–6 lead.
The Bengals fell to 2-8 in an ugly outing punctuated by two curious special teams plays in the second half. With Cincinnati trailing, 17-6, Bengals punter Daniel Pope let the snap slide through his hands and the Cowboys (4-6) recovered at the Bengals 26. When Tim Seder kicked a 35-yard field goal, it was 20-6 with 1:56 left in the third quarter.
Then the wheels came off early in the fourth quarter when Bengals kicker Neil Rackers lined up a 42-yard field goal and Pope handled a high snap as the holder. He chose to quick kick and the ball rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman enjoyed his first 300-yard passing day of a miserable season when he picked on the Bengals' cornerbacks, particularly Tom Carter, and didn't need the usually reliable Dallas running game as receiver James McKnight picked up 131 yards on his first six catches.
Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Akili Smith continued to slump. He went into the fourth quarter with 26 straight quarters without a touchdown pass and before the two-minute warning had just 68 passing yards on 10 of 25 passing with his longest throw a 15-yarder to Peter Warrick. He also overthrew about a 20-yard pass to receiver Craig Yeast at about the Cowboys 5 late in the third quarter and then midway through the fourth quarter forced a pass to Warrick over the middle that got intercepted by Dallas middle linebacker Dat Nguyen.
Aikman's 25-yard pass to Wayne McGarity set up Seder's 43-yard field goal on the first series of the second half, and on the next series a 35-yard pass interference penalty on Carter against receiver Jason Tucker set up Seder's one-yard touchdown run off a fake field goal.
The troubles of left tackle Rod Jones continued on that second series. Starter John Jackson re-injured his hamstring and Jones went into the game in the second quarter. With about nine minutes left in the third quarter, Jones let Cowboys end Ebenezer Ekuban race around his outside and cause Akili Smith's fourth sack-and-fumble of the season from that side.
Dallas recovered at the Cincinnati 30 and Aikman went to work as he completed 24 of his first 37 passes for 308 yards.
The Hall-of-Fame combination of Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith surfaced in the second quarter as Dallas took a 7-6 half-time lead.
The Bengals survived all sorts of bullets from the Cowboys here during the first half in getting field goals of 22 and 37 yards from Neil Rackers.. Dallas kicker Seder missed field-goal attempts from 39 and 44 yards, and Emmitt Smith fumbled on the one-foot line to end the Cowboys' first series of the game.
But Aikman, the lowest-rated passer in the NFC who missed last week's game with a back injury, hit 12 of his first 13 passes for 175 yards and looked his old nimble self against an invisible Cincinnati pass rush.
On the play before Aikman's 35-yard touchdown pass to McKnight with 8:30 left in the second quarter, Aikman got flushed out of the pocket. As he ran to the sideline, Aikman underhanded a flip over outside linebacker Steve Foley to a wide open Smith in the flat for a 19-yard gain.
Aikman then lofted a bomb down the right sideline, where McKnight fought with Carter for position in the end zone. Aikman did McKnight a favor by underthrowing the ball and McKnight just had to turn around for the catch. **The Bengals took aim at Dallas' rush defense, ranked last in the NFL, and racked up 103 yards in the first half with Corey Dillon picking up 63 on 14 carries. Dillon zeroed in on his club-tying 17th 100-yard game. At the two-minute warning, he had 94 yards on 20 carries.
But the Bengals' last-rated pass offense still couldn't get untracked and they had to settle for Rackers' field goals.
Akili Smith hit six of his first 12 passes, yet could manage just 31 yards as they continue to search for their first completion of 20 yards or more to a wide receiver since Oct. 15 and their first touchdown pass since Oct. 1.
The Bengals' first scoring drive of 16 plays and 67 yards was costly because Jackson re-injured his hamstring and was lost for the rest of the game.
Backup running back Brandon Bennett converted two third-down situations through the heart of the Cowboys' injury-riddled front as Cincinnati put the ball on the Dallas 8.
But from there the Bengals were unsuccessful sending Dillon wide against the speedy Dallas defense. They then tried passes on second and third down, with Akili Smith overthrowing Warrick in the end zone.
The Bengals stalled on their next series after an 11-yard run put the ball on the Dallas 20. Smith's incomplete pass on first down led to Rackers' 37-yard field goal.
Bengals free safety Darryl Williams forced Emmitt Smith to fumble on the Cincinnati one-foot line on Dallas' first series and that set a strange tone. The Bengals held Smith and his No. 8 rush offense to 13 yards in the first half.
But Aikman's No. 27 pass offense continually fried the Bengals as he finished 14 of 20 passing for 197 yards in the first half.
In other club news Sunday, agent Marvin Demoff confirmed Dillon has ended his relationship with him. Dillon is a free agent after the season, but he has yet to reveal the name of his new representative.