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Playoff game for playoffs


It's a weekend you most assuredly must keep up with the Joneses.

Here come the 6-6 Jerry Jones Cowboys to Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) in a win-or-else game to stay alive in the cutthroat NFC East. The Cowboys face the 7-5 second-chance Bengals, embroiled themselves in a bloody AFC North do-or-die December, riding the inspired play of recycled Cowboys like defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam Jones in a four-game winning streak that Cincinnati's defense has been stingily splendid.

If it sounds pretty even, it is. At least in the hallowed halls of the media roundtable, where it is as divided as Congress. A fitting welcome for America's so-called Team.

To show just how deep the Bengals are in the playoff chase, the public relations troika of Jack Brennan, P.J. Combs and Pete Schramm has been fielding requests from a raft of national media members and some were on site this week.

Jarrett Bell, the estimable longtime NFL scribe for USA Today who also serves as selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is picking the Bengals because they look confident and are riding a wave.

NFL Network's resourceful Ian Rapoport, a Framingham, Mass., native with a New York edge based in Dallas, looks at quarterback Tony Romo's ability to avoid the rush and sees the Cowboys escaping in a similar fashion with a field goal victory.

Todd Archer of calls it the same way and says Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey wins it at the gun like those Doug Pelfrey Bengals that Archer covered when he exhaustively chronicled the club for the Cincinnati Post.

Joe Reedy, The AFC's Beat Man of the Week for The Cincinnati Enquirer, sees the Bengals in a tight one, citing the Bengals defensive line's matchup.

Let's go around the table:


The matchup with former Bengals left guard Nate Livings is going to be interesting. It would seem that the Bengals have a pretty good edge against the Cowboys offensive line the way their front four is playing. Romo has played very well lately, but I think the Bengals are going to be able to get to him with pressure.

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is a matchup that has to be a concern. In the past he's the kind of tight end that has given the Bengals problems, but that hasn't been a problem in this four-game winning streak if you look at how they shut down Antonio Gates last week. He's going to get his catches and yards, but as long as he doesn't do anything major with big plays, they should be in pretty good shape.

The matchup with Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is another one to watch. The Bengals are down to two healthy running backs, but I'm not sure that's going to matter much. During this winning streak it's been BenJarvus Green-Ellis 92 to 95 percent and everybody else five to eight percent.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-20. I think being at home and being able to pressure Romo are big things going for them. Plus, you know what to expect from the Bengals, and the Cowboys are still one of the big mystery teams. You don't ever really know what to expect from the Cowboys. They've won three out of four and are coming off a win against the Eagles, but they've won in back-to-back weeks only once. After the bye week, the Bengals have been consistent. They lost to Denver coming out of the bye, but they played well and you know pretty much what you're going to get.


To beat Dallas, it's the simple stuff. Can you do it up front on both sides of the line? You look up and see the Bengals lead the league in sacks and that gets your attention. The Cowboys offensive line has not been a strength. I think it's been better than people thought it might be. I was at training camp and they were in crisis mode with a bunch of injuries. They've got some people back, but that was an area of concern for them.

That's an advantage for the Bengals if they can keep Tony Romo in control. Keep him in the pocket. Contain him. I saw RGIII against the Giants the other day and the Giants with that defensive line had zero sacks and the reason why is the mobility of the quarterback to get out of there. Romo can do the same thing for the Cowboys offensive line. He makes them better in pass protection. That's a real key for a defensive line that has played so well for Cincinnati.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. I don't see this having to be a 38-34 shootout or a low-scoring game. Cincinnati has to brings its A game. The Cowboys have so much talent that can break out at any point. Who covers Dez Bryant, Jason Witten? Who blocks DeMarcus Ware? The Cowboys definitely have marquee players. They've had those for a long time.  

There are a couple of things with the Bengals that tilt in their favor. There's the pass rush and being at home and they've got this wave of momentum going. It has a snowball effect and you start feeling more confident. It seems like they're finishing these games now better than they were a lot earlier during the season. They're a young team, so the confidence thing is real big for them.


Can the Cowboys protect Romo? The Cowboys pass protection hasn't been an issue, the Cowboys just can't run the ball with this offensive line very well. Having DeMarco Murray back helps. They haven't faced a front line like the Bengals all season and that says a lot when they've played the Giants and Chicago. If they're going to protect Romo, they have to run the ball.

Murray was really good before missing the six games before the Philly game last week with a foot injury. He helped them out a lot. But I don't think you can bank on the Cowboys getting that kind of production out of their line against a better front, against a team that is in the playoff picture compared to Philly, a team that appears to be laying down. This offensive line hasn't been a strength all year. I can't see them being able to move that front to give Murray a lot of room to work.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is struggling right now. He's lost a lot of guys. He doesn't have his two inside backers in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. He lost nose tackle Jay Ratliff. They lost Kenyon Coleman, probably their best run-defending defensive lineman. They lost safety Barry Church earlier. Throw in the nickel back Orlando Scandrick and they've lost five starters that began the season.

They haven't been very good against the run lately. Philadelphia tore them up last week. Alfred Morris went over 100 yards against them on Thanksgiving for the Redskins. They've been vulnerable to the run. The front seven needs to play better. The outside backers, Ware and Anthony Spencer, do a great job setting the edge, but the guys in the middle have to do a much better job.

They flop their cornerbacks. Earlier in the season they would have a guy like Brandon Carr follow Victor Cruz of the Giants all over the field. He did that twice. They like Carr, they like their rookie Morris Claiborne, they like Mike Jenkins. He's playing his second game in the slot. He never really played there and got forced in there when Scandrick got hurt. He's getting used to it, but they like their man coverage. If anybody follows Green, it will be Carr, but I think where he is they'll just play with who they've got instead of putting a guy on him.

What's strange is Rob Ryan stopped playing them in press coverage. Last week against Philly they pressed just once on the outside. They gave Carr 50 million bucks, they traded up to get Claiborne and Ryan has backed off how they used the press. He was upwards to 25 times a game in full press earlier in the season and now he barely gets to double digits. They're physical at the line of scrimmage. Claiborne can run better than Carr. He's had some trouble with penalties. He's a little too aggressive at times. Carr struggled against Washington, played better against Philly, but they didn't have DeSean Jackson. Pierre Garcon had a good game against them. Jeremy Maclin had a good game against them. I don't know why he's backed off the corners, but he needs to get more from the outside guys.

It's not that Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant is making great plays. He's done that ever since he came into the NFL. But he's more precise running his routes. He has a better understanding of where he's supposed to be and how he gets there. Austin has been hurt a lot this season, but still gets good run after catch in the slot with size and quickness. He's dangerous. The third receiver switches around, but that's the fifth option in this offense. Witten has been good with 88 catches, but they do nothing to get him open in the red zone.

THE EDGE: Cowboys, 27-24. Field goal at the gun by Dan Bailey. I think they'll make just enough plays on defense and they'll be able to move it on offense as long as they keep Romo upright, and they stay in the playoff chase. I don't feel good about the pick. Every game in the NFL is close. It comes down to breaks. The Cowboys are getting healthier, at least on offense, and they're coming off their best six quarters of the season. They've got Murrray back, Austin back, Bryant is playing really well, and Romo has been hot.


When I think about this game it's all about matchups. Start inside with so many of the Cowboys talking about Geno Atkins. It's funny, you go through the whole season and he hasn't been talked about until the numbers stack up and people look. Nate Livings has been banged up this week and the interior Cowboys offensive line has been a bit of a struggle, and so the biggest question for me is can they block him? I was talking to Romo (Thursday) and I said, 'Maybe this fits your style.' He runs around, he scrambles, he gets loose and that's when he's most effective. The problem is, if they rush together and keep him in the pocket, it's the nightmare scenario because with pressure up the middle he won't be able to go anywhere. That's my big thing, can they block the Bengals?

The other thing is, can the Bengals stop Dez Bryant? He's become the elite receiver that everyone thought he might be. In the last four games, 475 yards and he's been Romo's guy. Last week, third-and-short, they need a first down, they go deep to to Dez Bryant. That shows the trust they have in him. If anyone can cover him, that would be pretty interesting to see.

The Witten matchup is interesting. He'll have some high-volume days where he'll have 11 catches for 90 yards. I think this will be one of those. That was sort of the thing he was talking about Thursday. When they blitz, when they pressure, he was reminding himself he needs to take a six-yard reception and be fine with it. That's going to be big. Can he find those little gaps for the first down when they blitz. He was saying it might be one of those no-fun games where there's nothing more important than protecting. Now that they can depend on Dez a little more and wide receiver Miles Austin is getting healthier, they might have to have Witten block more.

It was interesting to hear Ware talk this week. How he's competing with the Bengals defensive line. Not annoyed, but he's very aware. It's like, 'I don't want them to get sacks. That's what I do.' That will be an interesting head game for him. That's what you want: your best guy vs. their best guy.

THE EDGE: Cowboys, 27-24. A close call. Everyone talks about the Cowboys talent, and don't get me wrong, in key spots they are talented. But just because we don't talk about as many of the Bengals, that doesn't mean they aren't as talented. You can go right down the line.

From Dez Bryant. You want to say he's more talented than A.J. Green? Witten at tight end is obviously productive, but as far as talent, Jermaine Gresham is someone that might be able to reach that level at some point. At left tackle. What about up front? If you consider Ware a linebacker, I'd rather take the Bengals front four.

At the minimum, these two teams are equally talented.


Romo is the NFC version of Ben Roethlisberger. He can make seemingly impossible plays while surviving felonious assault and has a sure-fingered cast that ranges from dangerous wide receiver Dez Bryant to reliable tight end Jason Witten.

The Bengals, who have shut down opposing quarterbacks in the four-game winning streak to the tune of a 65.2 passer rating, get a worthy opponent in Romo and his 98 passer rating the last five games. The Bengals cornerbacks, led by Newman, Jones and Leon Hall, have been all over the team's leading targets in the last month and have allowed virtually nothing. Pro Football Focus rates the Bengals in the top 36 in the league when it comes to coverage. They've allowed one TD pass in the last 16 quarters, a stretch in which the longest pass a wide receiver has caught against them is 28 yards.

Bryant has been doing that in his sleep the last month and if that's not enough, Witten leads NFL tight ends with 118 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. But he's 18th when it comes to percentage caught and the Bengals backers are hoping they have the same type of coverage that held Gates to 49 yards on six catches last week in San Diego.

The PFF stats say Romo better be ready to run. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, in overall play, and tackle Geno Atkins is ranked first. Meanwhile, the Cowboys offensive tackles are in the top 10 allowing quarterback hurries while former Bengal Nate Livings leads all NFL guards allowing six sacks, and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau is also in the top 10 allowing four.

There are other glittering matchups. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, rated second by PFF in pass-blocking, goes against Dallas's No. 1 pass-rushing 3-4 outside backer in DeMarcus Ware. With the Cowboys missing their two inside backers and nose tackle, the Bengals young interior has to keep playing the way it's been playing.

Wide receivers A.J. Green and company go up against the best contingent of corners they'll probably see this season. But after struggling with Pierre Garcon and Jeremy Maclin, the Cowboys are getting an eyeful in Green.

The Cowboys have a talented roster. But the Bengals have one to match with the pundits making it a coin flip. The Bengals hope the home field pushes the coin to heads for another week in the chase.

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