In a game the Cowboys needed in more ways than one, the team was able to overcome adversity to keep their playoff hopes alive. They did it without their best performance – the offense wasn't particularly efficient and the defense was aided by numerous costly Cincinnati mistakes – but the Cowboys were up to the challenge when it mattered most late in the contest.
- Head coach Jason Garrett dialed up more play-action passes than usual. Having averaged fewer than four per game through 13 weeks, Tony Romo showed play-action eight times on Sunday, completing four of the passes for 61 yards. One of the incompletions came on a beautiful call on first-and-10. Lined up with base personnel, Romo simply missed Miles Austin deep down the sideline for what could have potentially been a 67-yard touchdown.
- The Cowboys uncharacteristically looked downfield on their play-action passes, explaining why Romo was able to complete only half of them. Three of the eight play-action passes traveled at least 19 yards and the average depth was 12.0 yards. On the day, Romo attempted four passes of 20-plus yards, right in line with his deep ball rate in 2012.
- Dallas totaled only 49 rushing yards all day, averaging 2.04 yards per carry (YPC), but the running game actually wasn't as poor as those numbers suggest. That's because the Cowboys used the running game to convert numerous first downs in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations. A 3-yard gain on first-and-10 is obviously an unsuccessful play, for example, but the same gain on third-and-1 is huge. On the final drive alone, DeMarco Murray added 1.6 expected points on six runs. That included a 3-yard gain on third-and-1, which increased the Cowboys' expected points on the drive from 2.41 to 3.25, and the big 6-yard gain on third-and-5, which increased the expected points from 2.68 to 3.97.
- That monumental third-and-5 run, the one I called Garrett's best decision all year, was a draw. The Cowboys haven't utilized draws as often in 2012 as in past seasons, but they ran eight of them against the Bengals, including four on the final drive, all from spread formations. All told, Dallas ran the ball nine times out of spread formations, gaining 33 yards, or 3.67 YPC. The other 15 runs from tight formations netted 16 total yards, 1.07 YPC.
- I've never really been a fan of the end-around because it's a high-risk/low-reward play. Believe it or not, end-arounds are probably best in short-yardage situations because they're typically good for a few yards, especially when the defense is playing to stop a run up the middle. With the ball-carrier moving horizontally across the field, however, it's difficult to spring an end-around for a long gain. It seems like the Cowboys have called double-digit end-arounds this year, but it's actually only four: two to Dez Bryant and two to Kevin Ogletree. They've gained three total yards on those plays, although the total was 14 yards (gains of 5, 5 and 4) prior to Bryant's 11-yard loss on Sunday.
- On the first drive, Garrett decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Bengals' 19-yard line. With about a half-yard to go for the first down, I thought it was a time to keep the offense on the field. Historically, teams that have been in the same situation have scored more points by going for it – 1.18 extra points per drive, actually. For the decision to go for it to be correct, the Cowboys would need an expected conversion rate of 49.0 percent. The league-wide conversion rate on fourth-and-1 is 66.4 percent, and the Cowboys have converted 65.3 percent of their plays on third- and fourth-and-1 since 2009. Since the 'Boys needed even less than a full yard and the offensive line had shown a good push earlier in the drive, the Cowboys may have benefited from leaving the offense on the field. In Garrett's defense, the offense was in a position on the field where a field goal would be nearly automatic and a fourth-down conversion wouldn't guarantee seven points.
- I counted 16 blitzes from Cincinnati, seven of which were disguised. Romo struggled badly against the blitz to start the game, completing only one of his first seven passes when the Bengals rushed at least five defenders. On the day, Romo completed 5 of his 13 attempts against the blitz for just 52 yards, getting sacked once. Even though the Bengals blitzed on 30.4 percent of the Cowboys' passes, Romo threw only two of his 10 off-target passes against the blitz.