Bitten by injuries to several key players, the Cowboys won four games last season. Sunday at AT&T Stadium, with Tony Romo still sidelined with a back injury, the Cowboys will look to start the 2016 season 4-1 against a tough and tested Cincinnati Bengals team.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott helped the Cowboys overcome an early 14-point deficit last Sunday in a 24-17 road win at San Francisco. The Cowboys have nine players listed as "questionable" this week, including Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Orlando Scandrick and Dan Bailey. But they could get a boost from defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who was activated from the Exempt/Commissioner Permission list on Saturday, having completed his four-game NFL suspension.
Leading into Sunday's 3:25 p.m. (Central) kickoff against the Bengals, here are the gut feelings from staff writers Nick Eatman, Rob Phillips, Bryan Broaddus and David Helman.
Bryan Broaddus: The Cincinnati Bengals are the last defense you want to face if you are having issues along your offensive line and that was the case here in Dallas earlier in the week. There was plenty of shuffling with players switching positions in order to get the best five on the field. By Thursday things had calmed down with Tyron Smith returning to the lineup which allowed Doug Free and Zack Martin to return to their natural spots. The Cowboys are better to equipped to handle this Bengals front without having to make all those moves – the matchups are better. The Bengals plan is to play well on first and second downs then bring pressure on third. They want you in long yardage situations so they can attack your protection. Cowboys are offensively about staying ahead of the chains and convert manageable third down situations – which they have been outstanding at in 2016. My gut feeling is that the offensive line will play well against this Bengals front seven and they will average more than 4.5 yards per carry. Dallas wins the game on a Dan Bailey field goal 23-20.
David Helman: I pride myself on being objective and realistic about this team, especially in big moments. I'm usually the guy that has to be a wet blanket and temper people's expectations. So I'm awfully confused about why I feel so good about the Cowboys' chances on Sunday. The Bengals' combination of Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard is going to be a steep challenge for this defense. Even more daunting is Cincinnati's defensive front seven, which I expect is going to cause a lot of problems for this banged up Cowboys' offensive line. All of that said, I think Zeke Elliott and the Cowboys' ground game will have some success, and I trust Dak Prescott to go into this game and take care of the football. I think Carlos Dunlap is going to have two sacks for Cincinnati, but it won't stop Prescott from throwing for 230 yards to keep the chains moving, while the Cowboys run for two touchdowns on the day. On the flip side, get ready for A.J. Green to have success. I think the Pro Bowl wideout posts 130 yards or more. But without Tyler Eifert to threaten in the red zone, I think the Cowboys can prevent those yards from turning into too many touchdowns. In all honesty, the Bengals are a better team on paper, but I'm going to put some faith in Dak & Co. to get the job done and squeak out a home win – something like 24-20.
Rob Phillips: This is a really interesting matchup because both teams seem to be finding their way a quarter into the season. For that reason I'm expecting a close game at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys are getting key stops from their defense, and the running game has found its footing behind Ezekiel Elliott's league-leading 412 yards. The Bengals improved to 2-2 in Week 4 with a dominant win against the Dolphins. Their defense is experienced and talented, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict's return from NFL suspension gives them a big boost against the run. The key matchup is Cincinnati's defensive line against the Cowboys' offensive line. Personally, I think we'll see a push there, but it's surprising that the Bengals are ranked 31st in red zone touchdown efficiency and third-down efficiency. I expect them to be better in these situations Sunday, even though tight end Tyler Eifert has been ruled out. This is also the toughest front seven Dak Prescott has faced yet, but I'll say he breaks the NFL record for most pass attempts without an interception to start a career and the Cowboys do just enough to get to 4-1.
Nick Eatman: Maybe I'm just not giving the Bengals a lot of credit. Maybe I've never been a fan of Andy Dalton. And maybe I feel bad for picking against the Cowboys last week and they did a good job of winning that game. Either way, I'm going with Dallas to win this one and I'm not even thinking it'll be down-to-the-wire close. And maybe that's a good thing considering the Cowboys' issues at kicker. As of Friday, Dez Bryant remains "questionable" but if he plays, I think the Cowboys won't have many problems winning this one. But they showed last week they could win without him. I think special teams will be a big factor. Dan Bailey will find a way to gut out his back injury and fight through it. There will be a special teams touchdown and perhaps a blocked punt. I can see Ezekiel Elliott just getting to 100 yards and look for Benson Mayowa to actually have a more productive game than DeMarcus Lawrence. Give me the Cowboys in this one, winning with a score of around 31-19.