DALLAS - In a game that looked eminently winnable on the road against a rookie quarterback before heading to next week's Tom Brady Blue and White Homecoming in Foxboro, the Bengals offered one of their weaker efforts of the Green-Dalton era when they got blown out by the Cowboys in every category imaginable in a 28-14 loss Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
The Bengals' vaunted run defense and pass rush got pummeled in shockingly easy fashion and let the Cowboys' two rookies dominate them in ripping off a 28-0 lead after running back Ezekiel Elliott took advantage of Mike Nugent's 50-yard field goal try that went wide left by ripping off a 60-yard touchdown run on Dallas' first snap of the second half.
In falling behind by 28 points for the first time since the 2012 opener, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga got taken out on the second level and Elliott romped untouched up the middle to give the rookie NFL rushing leader 128 yards and two touchdowns on his first 10 carries on his way to a 134-yard day on just 15 carries.
It was the longest run against the Bengals since Thomas Rawls went 69 yards for a touchdown for Seattle nearly a year to the day back on Oct. 11. And that was the last time the Bengals had allowed an individual rusher 100 yards and it was the first time in two years they had allowed a 100-yard rusher on the road.
By the time the third quarter mercifully ended before 91,653, the largest crowd to ever see the Bengals in the regular season, the Cowboys had rolled up 184 yards rushing and finished with 180, the most the Bengals had given up since that 200-yard day by Seattle in the Bengals' overtime victory.
The Bengals need a win any kind of way because they are rapidly falling behind in the AFC North race. The Ravens slipped to 3-2 Sunday, but the 2-3 Bengals are now behind the 4-1 Steelers. It's the first time Cincy has been under .500 in October since Oct. 21, 2012.
Their offense didn't show up either, plagued by another disappearing act by the run game and penalties. With the run game relatively punchless and the Cowboys able to collapse on Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in a deep zone, Green didn't get his first catch and target until about nine minutes left in the second quarter and that was it in the first half. By the end of the third quarter, Green had just three catches for 45 yards and finished with four for 50.
On the way to 29 of 41 passing for 193 yards, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked four times and hit nine times. He did cut the lead to 28-7 when he hit wide receiver Brandon LaFell for a seven-yard touchdown pass with 10:10 left in the game for LaFell's first touchdown as a Bengal.
The TD was set up when left end Carlos Dunlap sacked and stripped Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, forcing Prescott's first turnover in his five NFL starts.
LaFell added his second touchdown catch with 2:39 left on Dalton's five-yard pass that made it 28-14. It was his eighth and final catch on the day for 68 yards.
With the Bengals offensive line failing to negotiate twists, it turned a four-man rush that came into the game with just six sacks into a monster.
After running back Giovani Bernard started, he and Jeremy Hill ran it just three times each for a total of 21 yards in the first half , another week where the running game offered next to nothing. Bernard finished with just 50 yards on nine carries and Hill, who appeared to aggravate a chest injury, had just four carries for 12 yards and for the fourth time in five games they failed to rush for 100 yards.
But the story of the debacle was how Prescott and Elliott simply shredded a defense that is supposed to be the heart of the Bengals. While Cincinnati's offensive line struggled mightily, the Cowboys' blue-ribbon offensive line delivered while not allowing the Bengals to breathe on Prescott while he hit his first five passes and eight of first 11 for 124 yards and Elliott gouged them for eight yards per bolt on his first eight carries.
The Cowboys' 238 yards and the Bengals' 116 yards on their first three drives tells you which team showed up and which team didn't. Prescott hit 10 of 15 passes for 147 yards in the first half while unsacked for an outrageous 120.7 passer and Elliott rolled for 68 yards on nine carries. The Bengals again got singed by a quarterback in one of his first NFL starts. Two weeks after Denver's Trevor Siemian threw four TDs against them, Prescott had a 117.9 passer rating on 18 of 24 passing for 227 yards.
Elliott mauled them for 42 yards on his first four carries, including a 13-yard touchdown run untouched up the middle that put the Bengals in a 7-0 hole four minutes into the game.
Elliott jetted behind Pro Bowl right guard Zach Martin caving the second level to cap a drive that never reached third down and Prescott completed his only pass in the seven-play drive for a first down when wide receiver Terrance Williams worked the middle for 11 yards. Elliott, who set the tone early in the drive when he gouged the Bengals' right perimeter for 13 yards around the outside, scored the first rushing touchdown of the season against Cincinnati with ease.
Then Prescott got the second one on the second drive, a touchdown made possible when Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey was called for holding tight end Jason Witten on the goal line on a third down incompletion. Prescott then ran the zone read to perfection and when left end Carlos Dunlap vaulted up the line to grab Elliott, Prescott strolled in around the perimeter to make it 14-0 in the first minute of the second quarter.
The big plays? Elliott took a sweep through the right side of the Bengals line for 15 yards and then Prescott, with plenty of time, stood in the pocket on second and four and hit Terrance Williams for 21 yards when he got inside the coverage over the middle.
The Cowboys went up 21-0 with about four minutes left in the half when wide receiver Cole Beasley slithered out of the slot and beat middle linebacker Rey Maualuga for a 14-yard touchdown pass as Prescott got flushed out of the pocket and had time to find Beasley on the run.
The big play? It came on third-and-three from the Bengals 45 and Prescott had absolutely no pressure when he hit Witten beating cornerback Josh Shaw over the middle. Witten delivered a hellacious stiff arm on safety Derron Smith and parlayed the missed tackle into a 31-yard play.
The Bengals put together a good first drive despite starting at their own nine when running back Rex Burkhead's 38-yard kick return got nuked by Derron Smith's hold.
But two runs by running back Giovani Bernard for 21 yards and his 11-yard catch in the flat just before Dalton was crushed got the Bengals out of jail. On first down from the 48, the Bengals sent wide receiver Brandon LaFell in motion and after LaFell flipped him the ball running left cornerback Anthony Brown blew it up for a three-yard loss, they didn't recover, and had to punt.
Their second drive got blown up when right guard Kevin Zeitler was called for a false start and then a hold when defensive end Ryan Davis beat him and he hauled him down.
The third series was more of the same. Pinned back on their, Dalton tried to go play action and got sacked when backup tackle Cedric Thornton powered past center Russell Bodine.
PRE-GAME NOTES: Bengals rookie wide receiver Cody Core dressed for his first NFL game Sunday when he replaced special teams ace James Wright, out with a hamstring issue against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. And Core was in on the tackle on the game's opening kickoff.
As expected, the Cowboys sat down wide receiver Dez Bryant with his slightly fractured knee.
The moves were made before a game that could be played in front of the biggest crowd to ever watch to watch the Bengals in a building that has a capacity of about 90,000.
They played before 92,045 at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 13, 1991 in the Bo Jackson Game, a 20-10 loss in an AFC Divisional post-season game. On Nov. 14, 2004, the Bengals beat Washington at FedEx Field when 87,786 watched in the largest crowd ever to see them in the regular season.
The 6-3, 210-pound Core, a sixth rounder out of Mississippi, may also get some of Wright's few snaps at wide receiver. Core led the team in receiving with eight catches for 135 yards and his 53-yarder from Andy Dalton was the Bengals' longest pass play during the preseason, when he also had one assisted tackle on special teams.
Other than that, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' inactive list had the usual suspects: tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, guard Christian Westerman, cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Chykie Brown, and quarterback Jeff Driskel.
The AT&T roof was closed, but the end-zone window was open.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to take on the Dallas Cowboys in week 5 of the regular season.