With the Paul Brown Stadium faithful of 63,590 cheering the Chargers rout of the Steelers on Sunday, the Bengals tried to leap ahead of their arch-rival for the second wild card spot but couldn't finish off the Cowboys in the red zone or in the second half and blew a nine-point lead in the last seven minutes as Dan Bailey's 40-yard field goal at the gun gave the Cowboys a 20-19 victory.
When the dust cleared, the 7-6 Bengals remained tied with Pittsburgh for the AFC's second and last wild card spot and also missed a chance to pick up a game on the AFC North-leading Ravens.
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, held to two catches for 14 yards at the time, broke loose on first-and-10 from the Bengals 27 and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo drilled a touchdown pass to Bryant running across the middle to cut the Bengals lead to 19-17 with 6:35 left.
Then the Bengals couldn't kill the clock. On what turned out to be their last series, it consisted of five straight passes, the last one on third-and-five and it resulted in a sack when outside linebacker Anthony Spencer worked a stunt and came up the middle against rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler.
The Bengals never got the ball back. Kevin Huber, punting for only the third time on the day, hit a 50-yarder and Romo started from his own 28 with 3:44 and two timeouts left. He hit tight end Jason Witten for a nine-yarder on third-and-five, and nickel-and-dimed down the field to set up Bailey's field goal. Ex-Cowboy Terence Newman almost won it for the Bengals, but an interception fell off his arm.
Running back DeMarco Murray converted a third-and-one on a three-yarder that put the ball on the Bengals 35, as well a six-yarder on third-and-five from the Bengals 30. Murray finished with just 53 yards on 21 carries and Bryant, the hottest receiver in the league, finished with four catches for 50 yards and that touchdown. But it was enough for Romo to parlay a 74.6 passer rating into the 17th fourth-quarter comeback of his career.
The newest Bengal, their own kicker, ended up being Cincinnati's game MVP as Josh Brown made his first four field goals right off the couch, the last a 52-yarder that gave the Bengals a 19-10 lead with 6:45 left in the third quarter.
But it should have been a lot more.
On the snap before the field goal, the always reliable A.J. Green dropped a wide-open third down pass across the middle at about the Cowboys 18. He had to go to the ground, but it was a good enough ball and it was one that Green usually wraps up.
Dalton threw him a beauty on the previous series and that was a big one. It was on third-and-goal from the Cowboys 7 and Green was open on a slant with a lane widening up the middle that looked to be a certain touchdown. But Green ran before he had it and dropped it. That brought on Brown and he hit the field goal that made it 16-10 with 9:22 left in the third quarter.
But the Bengals really should have had a touchdown on first down when Dalton rolled away from pressure and hit rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones for what looked to be his first NFL touchdown. But it was ruled he stepped out of bounds running the route.
What more could you say about Brown? After winning a kicking tryout on Thursday as Mike Nugent nurses a right calf injury, Brown not only hit the field goals but he has also had five touchbacks on his first six kickoffs.
Bengals safety Reggie Nelson hit Bryant with a hellacious shot to dislodge the ball and force a punt on the series after the Bengals went up 19-10. But Nelson was called for a controversial hit to a defenseless receiver even though replays clearly showed Nelson hit Bryant in the chest with his shoulder pad, but the Cowboys got a first down at midfield.
But that's all. The defense shut down the Cowboys on the next three snaps with Nelson getting vindication and a sack off a blitz when Romo slipped in the face of pressure.
It was a costly sequence, though, for the Bengals. After the penalty, they took a timeout and that left them with just one. And they used their last one with 14:29 left in the game when middle linebacker Ray Maualuga had to come off the field with an injury.
The Bengals continually pushed the Cowboys into the red zone without punting during the first half, but besides wide receiver Andrew Hawkins's eight-yard touchdown catch-and-run off a shovel pass from Dalton, all they got was Brown's first two field goals as a Bengal to give Cincinnati a 13-10 halftime lead.
Tied at 10, Dalton converted two third downs, an 11-yard stop-and-go over the middle to Hawkins and a spectacular one-handed grab down the middle by tight end Jermaine Gresham despite tight coverage by cornerback Sterling Moore. A four-yard run by running back Brian Leonard spelling BenJarvus Green-Ellis put the Bengals at the Cowboys 18. But on third-and-and-three, Dalton had Hawkins open across the 10 but he led him too far and Brown came on for his second field goal of the game, a 33-yarder with 3:24 left in the half that made it 13-10.
The Bengals got just one sack against Romo in the half (three for the game) and his beleaguered offensive line, but the Cowboys were only able to score in the first half when they were set up by cornerback Brandon Carr's long interception return. Facing coverage from various Bengals cornerbacks, Bryant had no catches, Murray had just 21 yards on 10 carries, and Romo was only 10-of-20 for 97 yards and a 43.1 rating in the half.
(Bryant's first catch came with eigtht minutes left in the third quarter for eight yards.)
And it looked like the sack came at the perfect time when ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson split one deep in Dallas territory on the first play after the two-minute warning and the Bengals looking like they'd have a shot to get one last score.
But it was a worst-case scenario. Dunlap was called for a facemask that gave Dallas an automatic first down and Johnson limped off the field with a foot injury and his return was questionable. Romo threw a desperate bomb that got picked off by Nelson with 38 seconds left.
Johnson came back to start the second half and finished.
The Bengals looked ready to go up 17-3 early in the second quarter when they motored to midfield on their third possession after scoring on their first two drives.
But after Dalton pulled off a play-action fake and rolled to his right, he threw an interception trying to hit Green near the right sideline at the Bengals 36 when Carr cut in front of the receiver and went the other way 37 yards to put Dallas at the Bengals 27.
Romo wasted no time and went to his favorite receiver off play-action and hit Witten running past rookie WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict for a 25-yard gain. After wide receiver Miles Austin had his juggling touchdown catch taken off the board via review, Murray leaped over from the 1 to tie the game at 10 with 10:33 left in the half.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden threw the kitchen sink at the Cowboys right away Sunday and was rewarded with his fourth opening-drive touchdown in the last five games when Hawkins took a flip from Dalton running in motion from left to right and jetted around the edge for the easiest of eight-yard touchdown catches.
Hawkins followed right tackle Andre Smith and Green-Ellis for his fourth touchdown of the season that gave the Bengals a 7-3 lead with 5:35 left in the first quarter. After Green-Ellis bolted up the middle for a 19-yarder on Cincinnati's second snap of the game, the Cowboys appeared to bring their linebackers up tight and Gruden called a reverse to Marvin Jones from right to left and Jones followed Gresham and left tackle Andrew Whitworth for a 37-yard gain. That set up Cincinnati's 14 touchdowns in its last 18 red-zone trips, but the Bengals couldn't extend the roll the rest of the game.
Dalton started the second drive at his point-guard best. He hit Jones sliding across the middle for 17 yards and facing third-and-seven from the Cowboys 27 he whistled a 16-yarder over the middle to Green. But on third-and-four from the Cowboys 5, Dalton felt pressure from the Bengals left when defensive tackle Jason Hatcher sacked him and that set up Brown's first field-goal attempt as a Bengal, a 25-yarder that made it 10-3 with 1:39 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals defense began the game holding again in the red zone when Romo pulled a play action-fake from the Bengals 19 on third-and-one rolled out trying to hit tight end James Hanna across the middle, but he threw it low as safety Chris Crocker broke in front of the receiver. Bailey then gave the Cowboys a 3-0 lead with 8:36 left in the first quarter. That made it in their last nine red-zone stands, the Bengals had allowed just one touchdown until Murray scored later.
Dalton finished 20-of-33 for 206 yards for a 76.1 passer rating. He got it to Green just three times on eight targets for 44 yards, his lowest since he had one catch for eight yards against Pittsburgh on Oct. 21. Hawkins was Dalton's leading receiver with six catches for for 44 yards while Green-Ellis had 89 yards rushing on 12 carries to go with Leonard's 20 yards on six carries.
PREGAME NOTES: The hope is that kicker Mike Nugent (calf) and running back Cedric Peerman (ankle) are ready for Thursday's game in Philadelphia, but they were a scratch Sunday for the Bengals game against the Cowboys at Paul Brown Stadium.
Also inactive was tight end Richard Quinn, which means that Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) must be at pretty much full go after coming out of Friday's limited practice probable. Rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion) didn't practice all week, so he was inactive. Jason Allen, who had been active just once this season, was active for the first time in 10 games.
Rookie defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson were inactive for the fifth straight game and rookie safety George Iloka for the third straight game.
Look for center Kyle Cook to make his 2012 debut at some point, getting a series here in there while Trevor Robinson takes the bulk of the snaps.
There were some pregame moments Sunday as the Cowboys coped with the death of rookie practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown, killed in a car accident Saturday morning. Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent, expected to start Sunday, was charged with intoxication manslaughter in his death and was among the Dallas inactives.
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant spent time chatting with his quarterback at Oklahoma State, Bengals practice-squadder Zac Robinson during warmups. So did Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and one of his former players, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, as they put their arms around each other. Jerry Jones also had a long conversation with his former defensive coordinator now plying his trade in Cincinnati, Mike Zimmer.
The game captains were Andy Dalton, Rey Maualuga, Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko and Jeromy Miles.