If this was the dress rehearsal, the Cowboys indeed may be ready to raise the curtain on opening night.
Against a team that many consider to be legitimate playoff contenders, the Dallas first-team offense drove for two scores, while the starting defense kept Cincinnati out of the end zone, the Cowboys taking a 14-7 lead into halftime on their way to a 24-18 victory in front of 76,376 satisfied fans.
"I think there were some positive things in the first half," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Obviously we controlled the ball and did a good job of scoring in the red zone."
If not for a still-shaky special teams unit, the visitors wouldn't have lit the scoreboard against the Cowboys' starters. As it was, a 75-yard punt return – which came on a re-kick after Chris Jones' first attempt hit the video board – provided the Bengals with their only points through the first 30 minutes of play.
The first-teamers produced 167 total yards to 101 for the Bengals, of which 137 came through the air. They also picked up 12 first downs to Cincinnati's 5, and held the time-of-possession advantage, 19:36 to 10:24.
"I thought the defense did a good job of stopping them," said Garrett. "We did have some bad plays, though, obviously the punt return. We can't have that and have to do that better. I thought there were some self-inflicted wounds that we have to improve upon. I thought our guys played hard and thought we made some plays. The defense made two critical plays, taking the ball away from them twice. That gives you such a great opportunity to score points and the offense took advantage of it."
The two takeaways about which Garrett was referring came courtesy of both a fumble recovery and an interception. Cincinnati was driving on their first possession, reaching the Dallas 16-yard line, but there is where safety Barry Church stripped the ball away from wide receiver Marvin Jones, cornerback Brandon Carr there to recover the prize.
Then, after tying the game 7-7, rookie cornerback B.W. Webb stepped in front of a deep pass intended for wideout Mohamed Sanu, stopping another potential threat. That marked four interceptions this preseason for the Cowboys rookie class, with linebacker Davonte Holloman netting two and safety J.J. Wilcox also recording a pick.
"It felt good," said Webb of the interception. "I was really excited. But give it up to my coaches and teammates for helping me out on being where I was supposed to be."
"I think we did a solid job," said linebacker Bruce Carter. "Everybody is just going out there and executing our scheme and running to the ball. I think we did a great job."
Meanwhile, with the defense looking strong, Tony Romo and the passing game overall looked potent and prepared for the upcoming campaign as well. On the team's first scoring drive, which went 87 yards in 12 plays, the quarterback hooked up with receiver Dez Bryant five times for 53 yards, the last of which was a 5-yard toss to the left side of the end zone that saw Bryant fight off the defender for an impressive score.
Then on the team's second march to paydirt, a 57-yard possession on eight plays, Romo's main target was Bryant's receiving counterpart. Miles Austin hauled in a 23-yard pass to the Cincinnati 12, then three plays later Romo fired a beauty of a pass to Austin streaking across the back line of the end zone for the touchdown.
"I feel pretty good, relatively speaking," Austin said of his performance. "I feel healthy and ready to go for the season."
"I think a lot of guys are doing a lot of good things," said Romo. "Dez had a great night, Miles did great. I think we are continuing to get better and doing that every day since training camp. I think you can tell that we are doing some good things.
"It was good to finally play a half and be able to execute into the second quarter. The guys did a great job against a really good defense, and that was really good to see."
Of course, there was a second half to account for, and it, too, provided plenty of hope. With the starting defense calling it a night, the second string was matched up against the Bengals first-stringers. And while the visitors were able to get deep into Dallas territory, they couldn't cross the goal line, settling for a field goal.
Then it was the Cowboys turn. The team's first second-half possession saw the starting linemen remain on the field with the skill positions mostly consisting of backups, including quarterback Kyle Orton.
All, that is, except for running back DeMarco Murray. In the first half, he rushed only four times for 6 yards, catching another pass for 7 more, before Phillip Tanner took the lead role with the starting offense, picking up 39 yards on 14 carries. Murray did have a fumble, recovered by Dallas, so perhaps he was given a little time to think about his miscue on the sidelines.
But on he came for the Cowboys' first drive of the second-half and he didn't disappoint. Murray was handed the ball eight times during the 14-play, 86-yard drive, racking up 45 yards. He then capped things off by catching a 7-yard swing pass from Orton on the right side, dancing around one defender before bullying his way into the end zone for the score, the lead back up to 21-10. [embedded_ad]
And with that, the game was left to those fighting for roster spots. The Dallas backups allowed a touchdown and 2-point conversion to narrow the score to 21-18 in the fourth quarter, but for the second time on the night – the first resulting in a missed 50-yard field goal attempt by Dan Bailey – quarterback Alex Tanney led the Cowboys into enemy territory.
This time, Bailey was good from 26 yards out, cornerback Xavier Brewer then sealing the victory with an interception, the fifth by a Dallas rookie, on the Bengals' final possession.
The Cowboys now have a short week ahead, as they'll turn around and host the Houston Texans on Thursday in their final exhibition contest before the regular season gets underway at home on Sept. 8 against the rival New York Giants. That game will likely see the starters sit, the coaches getting one last opportunity to shape the bottom of the Dallas roster.