FRISCO, Texas – It's amazing what a positive turnover differential can do for a team.
One of football's oldest adages is that winning the turnover battle trumps everything. Heading into Sunday, the Cowboys' -13 margin was second-worst in the league – which does a lot to explain their horrible record.
Go figure, then, that the Cowboys' easiest, most lopsided win of this snake bitten season saw them dominate the turnover battle, recovering three first half fumbles to turn the tide of the game.
"It's the number one priority," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "Turnover differential, if you look at the history of the National Football League, it equates to success. Plus-three was probably the most important statistic on the stat sheet."
Not only did the Dallas defense force those turnovers, they led to points.
Most importantly was the second Cincinnati fumble of the afternoon, as Bengals running back Trayveon Williams lost the ball when he ran into his own blocker. The ball fell quietly to the turf, where Aldon Smith was heady enough to see it before any other player and scoop it for a 78-yard touchdown return.
"I know that I'm like really fast, so I knew that as I soon as I picked it up it was going to be impossible for me to get caught," Smith joked. "But seriously, I was looking at the screen, I saw there was really nobody around so I was able to take it in for the touchdown."
The Cowboys haven't forced many takeaways this season. They certainly haven't scored many defensive touchdowns. So the significance of Smith's touchdown putting them up 10-0 early in the game can't be understated.
"You can see clearly, especially having three turnovers in the first half, we haven't played with the lead and we got a chance to play differently," McCarthy said. "We got to play run/pass mix on offense since we were not playing catch-up."
This late in the season, it's easy to take Smith's production for granted. Just one of his five sacks this season has come in the last two months -- but even still, he has been one of the Cowboys' most consistent defenders. Given that he spent much of the last five years on the outside of the NFL looking in, it's pretty incredible that Sunday marked his first touchdown since high school.
"It's just crazy to think about where I was a year ago and then now scoring my first touchdown in the NFL," he said. "At a loss for words."
There's credit enough to go around, though. DeMarcus Lawrence might not have scored, but he started things off with a bang when he stripped Geovani Bernard on just the third play from scrimmage. Jourdan Lewis recovered the fumble on the Cincinnati 32-yard line, and the Cowboys' offense kicked an opening field goal three minutes later.
"D-Law just made a hell of a play," Lewis said. "Came in, folded and stripped the ball and I just saw the ball floating around people's legs and I just jumped on it."
Has it been mentioned yet that the Bengals literally fumbled on their first three possessions of the game? The next possession after Smith's touchdown, they managed to drive all the way to the Dallas 15-yard line. Facing a 4th-and-1, Bengals receiver Alex Erickson actually seemed to convert the first down on a jet sweep – only to fumble when he was hit by Darian Thompson and see it recovered by Jaylon Smith.
"We've done it before -- really haven't showed it this season," Smith said. "Just putting together a full sixty minute game but we was able to do that today."
The Cowboys' offense took that extra possession and drove 88 yards on 15 plays, scoring to take a 17-0 lead with just 6:38 to play until halftime. From there, the outcome was never genuinely in doubt.
It hasn't happened nearly often enough this year, but the Cowboys would undoubtedly love to get more of it over the final three weeks of the season.
"That's why we spend so much time on those key fundamentals of taking care of the football and taking the ball away," McCarthy said. "It was great to see the ROI come into play today."