In his matchup with returning former Bengals starter Andy Dalton Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, quarterback Brandon Allen offered a noble gutty effort in his best performance since replacing the injured Joe Burrow.
But after limping through a knee injury during the final 11 plays of a 15-play drive that yielded no points with 7:23 left in the game, Allen had to leave and he offered no excuses on the final two incompletions from the Dallas 10 when seven points would have cut the Cowboys' lead to 20-14.
While Allen believes it's a bone bruise, he said he'd wait and see how the swelling goes and if he'd be able to play in their next game, next week's PBS Monday nighter against the Steelers.
Allen hurt his knee on a third-down scramble and hung in there even though he had a pretty good limp.
"It was just one of those things where I got hit right in the right spot, and a lot of times, you just walk it off and it gets better," Allen said. "I tried to stay out there and walk it off, and it kind of just got tighter and tighter instead. It was obviously affecting me a little bit on some of the throws — it was kind of hard to get any weight into the throws. We checked it out, (and) I didn't want to hinder our offense if I wasn't able to perform the way I am able to perform."
On third-and-seven from the 10, Allen threw behind tight end Drew Sample throwing a ball across the field to the left sideline. On the next snap he tried to hit wide receiver Tyler Boyd in the back left corner of the end zone and badly overthrew him.
"I'm not going to blame it on that, obviously," Allen said of his knee. "(It was) just a poor, poor decision (with a) poor, poor throw. I'm trying to give (Tyler Boyd) a chance in the back of the end zone, but the ball definitely just got away from me."
Backup Ryan Finley warmed up during the drive, but Allen did make plays like a third-and-six throw to wide receiver A.J. Green on the right sideline.
"He kept giving me the indication he was good to go," said head coach Zac Taylor. "He's a tough guy and was making plays for us. It's hard to know the extent of the injury when he's out there, and you don't get a chance to talk to him. He's a tough guy, and you could tell he wanted to push through."
ZAC 'IRATE': Taylor may have telegraphed his growing impatience even before Sunday's game when he opted for a new kicker and left guard. Or during, when he pulled rookie left tackle Hakeem Adeniji after the second series and went with Fred Johnson. Or when he went with a running back by committee.
But he left no doubt of where he stood after the Bengals giftwrapped Dallas' 30-7 victory with three lost fumbles on the first three series of the game. According to Elias, not since Taylor was five years old have the Bengals turned it over during the first three series of a game. They lost that one, too, on Oct. 16, 1988 in New England to end their 6-0 start.
"Irate, stunned," is what Taylor called it. "You give a team 10 points right out of the gate without having to take the field. It's a disappointing start to the game. I couldn't have felt better going into this game, but to give them 10 points before they had to do anything is a disappointing way to start."
The Bengals haven't finished minus-three in turnovers all year and only twice last year. But there they were, minus three, just 15:10 into a game they trailed 10-0, soon to be 17-0.
"It makes you sick to start the way you started today, for as good as you feel walking out of that locker room in pregame," Taylor said. "You start with three straight fumbles, and you're just sick to your stomach. It's a very difficult way to play football."
Taylor said he didn't have a specific plan mind while making the personnel moves.
After Randy Bullock had missed three of his last five field goals and an extra point in the last three games, he turned to Austin Seibert: "We need to make some of those kicks, so we took a look at Austin."
After benching left guard Michael Jordan for last week's final series and the Giants game two weeks ago, he did it again and replaced him with Xavier Su'a-Filo in a move he's done before to get the second-year Jordan to step back and re-boot: "For Mike, it certainly was."
When he replaced Adeniji with Johnson after the second series ended with running back Trayveon Williams smashing into the back of Adeniji and losing the ball at the Cowboys 22 on a play that ended in Aldon Smith's 78-yard fumble return, it appeared that maybe Adeniji had not moved the way they wanted him: "(Adeniji) was struggling, so we thought Fred could give us a chance there."
That play was sandwiched between running back Giovani Bernard's fumble on the second play of the game and wide receiver Alex Erickson's fumble on a fourth-and-one jet sweep at Cowboys 15 that would have been a first down on the first play of the second quarter.
After Williams fumbled, he went to the bench and was replaced by Samaje Perine. He returned late in the first half.
"When you lose, it's frustrating. It's hard to get rid of this feeling that we feel at the end of every week," Taylor said. "It's frustrating, because we feel good about the position we're about to put ourselves in (for the game). But it's a myriad of reasons for why we lose. It 100 percent falls on me. It's just frustrating. A lot of effort goes into this. Guys are pulling together, and it's still a very close team. I think you can see that you see them out there playing. We just haven't made the plays to put us in a position to win the game."
GIO AND THE UNTHINKABLE: Bernard, making his seventh straight start in place of the injured Joe Mixon, is the gold standard of ball security. When he lined up for the second play of the game, the Bengals had just pulled off a play-action bootleg pass for 10 yards and he had the NFL's longest active streak without a fumble on 829 carries, the longest ever by a Bengal since they've kept the stat for the past 30 seasons.
But when he found the going tough up the middle, Bernard bounced it to the right and he never saw defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence coming from right straight behind him clawing at the ball and producing Bernard's first fumble since his rookie year eight seasons ago.
Taylor promptly replaced him with Williams and his six career NFL carries and Bernard wasn't seen against until the first series of the second half. He finished with just three carries for eight yards while Williams went for a career-high 12 carries and 49 yards and Perine added 32 yards on 10 carries. The Bengals finished with just 3.4 yards per carry on a day they hoped to make hay against the NFL's worst run defense allowing 5.2 per.
Taylor said he was looking to do it with back by committee and didn't single out Bernard after his fewest carries since Mixon's been out.
"We were planning on rotating the running backs before the game," Taylor said. "That wasn't necessarily a problem. Gio is great with his ball security over the course of his career. Our plan was to rotate through all three of those backs."
CLASS WELCOME FOR DALTON: The Bengals don't usually announce individual visitors, just teams. But they showed how much the team and the town feels about him when they announced, "Andy Dalton and the Dallas Cowboys."
Dalton didn't have to do much. The fumbles did it for him. But he won and that's what Dalton does. He doesn't give away games and Dallas' 17-0 lead was safe. He was terrific on the drive giving him the 17-0 lead when he converted four third downs of all varieties to wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb.
After he doused the Bengals with 16 of 23 passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns, his teammates threw water on him in a locker room head coach Mike McCarthy gave him the game ball.
He was clearly nostalgic. There were plenty of shots of wife Jordan in a suite during the Fox broadcast and he did what he always did at the Paul when he threw a touchdown and made sure he saluted her. Their vast charitable foundation for ill children and their families has had a sprawling impact.
Dalton seemed to like one sign as much as the victory.
'' 'Thank you Andy and JJ for changing lives.' That's what we tried to do while we were here and use our platform for good and show God's love to a lot of people," Dalton said. "I felt like that was a great reception to come back and feel that today."
Even the visiting locker room was familiar.
"I think the last time I was in this locker room we had an event with my foundation and threw a Christmas party with a lot of the families," Dalton said. "To be in this locker room was a little different thing for playing a game. It was just part of the memories and part of the stuff I think about during my time here in Cincinnati."
It looked like McCarthy tried to get Dalton that second touchdown pass of the day on the first play after the two-minute warning. The Cowboys were up 23-7 facing a fourth-and-one from the Bengals 7. Instead of taking a knee or handing off, Dalton not only didn't run it, he faked it on a bootleg before hitting wide-open running back Tony Pollard.
But defensive end Sam Hubbard and middle linebacker Josh Bynes didn't object.
"It was just a good play call on their part," Hubbard said. "We brought pressure, they ran bootleg, got a guy free, that's just how it was. We weren't going to go down passively. We brought everybody trying to stop that. Get that yard."
GREEN HAS A DAY, TOO: It would figure that Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green would have a bounce-back day (six catches, 62 yards, a TD and some huge conversions) with Dalton in the building after the only back-to-back catch-less days of Green's career.
They were known, until Dalton was released back in April, as the Green-Dalton Bengals. That's because in 2011 Green arrived in the first round, Dalton came in the second and they combined to lead the Bengals to five straight play-off berths and went to a combined ten Pro Bowls.
So naturally, Green's wife Miranda sat with Jordan Dalton and, just as naturally, Green caught his second touchdown pass of the season for the Bengals' only score of the day on Allen's five-yard pass with eight seconds left in the first half.
"It was so weird, man, it was so weird just to see him in that uniform with those colors," Green said. "Andy and I have a relationship that is bigger than football. Just watching him out there, watching my have the success that he's having. Our wives sat together in the boxes today. It was special. It's weird, but I'm happy for him that he's getting a starting job and can show people what he can do. "
As he heads into free agency, Green sounds a little bit like Dalton did at the end of last year. He's not sure what's next.
"We'll see what happens, man. I can't read what's going to happen," Green said. "I'm living in the moment right now. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I love my time here. Who knows what is going to happen. I will be ready for anything and be excited to get back to playing football whether it is here or somewhere else."