Dallas Cowboys: 5 Keys to Game Against Cincinnati Bengals

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Cowboys vs. Bengals: 5 Keys to the Game for Dallas

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals are in two very different yet somewhat similar places right now. At 7-5, the Bengals are currently tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC's sixth and final playoff seed with still one more game against their division rivals. In other words, Cincinnati controls its own playoff destiny.

On the other hand, Dallas is currently tied with the Washington Redskins at 6-6, one game behind the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC's sixth seed and one game behind the New York Giants for the NFC East lead. The Cowboys can overtake the Redskins when the two teams meet in Week 17, but even winning out doesn't ensure Dallas will make the playoffs.

The one sure thing in this Week 14 matchup is both teams desperately need a win. By the numbers, the Cowboys have the NFL's second-best passing offense, third-worst rushing offense, 10th-best pass defense and 17th-best run defense while the Bengals are steady across the board with the 13th-best passing and rushing offense and the 11th-best pass and run defense. These stats tell the story of both teams: Dallas has been incredibly inconsistent all season while Cincinnati has been just above average in all aspects of the game.

However, each team has proved in recent years that anything can happen once the playoff stretch run begins and a loss in this game could end either team's chances of reaching the postseason, so it's sure to be a nail-biter.

This game is arguably more important for Dallas, so let's dive into five keys to the game for the Cowboys.

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Stay Disciplined on Defense

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The Cowboys tried hard to give away their 38-33 win over the short-handed Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13, but somehow held on despite a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown by Damaris Johnson with less than a minute left. Obviously that big special teams play hurt, but it wouldn't have mattered had Dallas' defense not given up six offensive plays of 20 yards or more by the Eagles. Philadelphia running back Bryce Brown had carries of 24, 39 and 20 yards while Eagles quarterback Nick Foles completed passes of 21, 29 and 20 yards.

In case you've been living under a rock this season, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completes passes of at least twice that distance to receiver AJ Green on a regular basis. In fact, Green has six receptions of at least 42 yards this season, three of which went for touchdowns. As far as "big plays" go (at least 20 yards), Dalton has connected with Green 11 times this season.

The Cowboys are not going to stop Green and to think they would is moronic because the superstar sophomore receiver is averaging just over six catches per game and tied his season high with nine in Week 13. However, if Dallas can prevent Green from changing the course of the game with a 50-yard bomb like he's done three times this season, then the Cowboys will have a chance to win the game.

Dallas is a mentally-weak team, so any big play like that can kill its morale and possibly break the game wide open. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should double or slide safety help over to Green's side of the field on first and third downs and obvious passing situations on second down to keep his receptions under 20 yards. This will be critical in keeping the game close, especially in the first half.

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Pressure Andy Dalton Without Becoming Predictable

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For some reason, everybody and their uncle is preaching pass rush for the Cowboys this week as if that shouldn't be a priority in every other game they ever play for the rest of time. As far as this specific game is concerned, that Captain Obvious statement shouldn't be taken too far because a team like the Bengals that has an explosive weapon like Green can render an opposing pass rush helpless and useless if the defense isn't careful.

Ryan needs to completely dump his entire play book on a coffee table and then organize every blitz package he has in preparation for this game. Dalton may only be a second-year pro, but he plays like a seasoned veteran, so if Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler just pin their ears back and rush Dalton all afternoon, the former TCU Horned Frogs standout will have a field day against Dallas.

At 25 years old, Dalton is pretty swift-footed for a quarterback and he's good at stepping up in the pocket when he gets pressure only from the outside. Now if Ryan uses that outside rush to set up a cross or twisted blitz from the inside on the next play in obvious passing situations, then Dalton could be lying on his back a lot during the game. The key for Dallas will be a balanced pass rush in this game. Sure, it's a must-win, so everyone will be pulling out all the stops and not holding back their aggression, but overrunning a quarterback on the outside pass rush will be disastrous for the Cowboys. Ryan's defensive play-calling ability will be under a microscope this week.

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Don't Get Trigger Happy

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Cowboys head coach and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has called at least 40 pass plays in five games this year, including a 52-pass contest and two separate 62-attempt outings. That is absolutely unacceptable as an NFL offensive play-caller and he should have been fired already, but he's still in Dallas, so we have to deal with him.

The attempted point from the above stats is Garrett is not a quality NFL offensive play-caller and he frequently lets his itchy trigger finger get the best of him. Don't think for a minute that's not clear as day to opposing defenses. They know that if the Cowboys don't get at least five yards on first-down runs that they're going to pass on second and third down. Cincinnati has an even further advantage with former Cowboys cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam "Pacman" Jones to give them an insight to Dallas' offensive stupidity.

Garrett absolutely has to call a balanced game from an offensive standpoint like he did against the Eagles in Week 13, which was the first time since Week 1 that the Cowboys threw less than 30 passes and running back DeMarco Murray had at least 20 carries. The result both times was a big win over a divisional opponent. Even more impressive are Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's stats from those games: over 300 passing yards and three touchdowns in each contest to compliment a rushing touchdown by Murray. The formula is ridiculously easy, but the Cowboys are just 6-6 because Garrett has only implemented it twice in 12 games. #RML

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Mix Up Running Game

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The formula for success is an easy one but you can bet the farm Garrett will find a way to mess it up if he ever figures it out. The Cowboys need to utilize their running game more to keep defenses honest and keep Romo out of a body cast, but that doesn't mean Murray should carry the ball 30 times each game. He has incredible power and an explosive step into would-be tacklers that makes him an ideal workhorse running back. However, even studs like Murray can be neutralized by a repetitive and/or predictable game plan.

Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys have one of the most dynamic stables of running backs in the NFL, but it goes unnoticed because Garrett doesn't know how to use them. Felix Jones isn't an every-down back, but he's one heck of a third down back who can catch passes out of the backfield and stretch outside running plays for long yardage with some decent blocking. What makes him most effective is situational carries when opposing defenses are lulled to sleep by Murray pounding away at them. That's when Jones can turn a screen pass into a 30-yard gain or a toss into a nine-yard gain on first down that sets up a wide open play call on second and short.

Even more so, guys like rookie Lance Dunbar and second-year pro Phillip Tanner can and should be utilized more in certain situations. Just because Murray is healthy doesn't mean he and Jones should be the only ones carrying the ball. Dunbar provides big-play ability with his incredible speed and quick first step while Tanner can do pretty much everything, but especially mow over would-be tacklers in short-yardage situations. Dallas is moronic for not utilizing these two youngsters more in their running back committee. This team could be unstoppable offensively despite its incredibly poor offensive line if Garrett knew how to use the talent on his roster.

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Take Favorable Chances

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When Garrett's play-calling is called conservative, that doesn't mean he runs the ball or just calls short pass plays. When term is applied specifically to the Cowboys' head honcho, it typically means he doesn't know when to go for it on fourth down or when to take a shot to the end zone in certain situations.

If the Cowboys face a fourth-and-two near midfield down by five with four minutes left, they should go for it. A 9-3 team atop its division might not, but a 6-6 team that might not even get into the playoffs by winning out absolutely has to take that chance. As mentioned, Dallas is a mentally-weak team that absolutely cannot make a big stop in the situation described above to preserve time for its offense to try and win the game. Garrett has to recognize that and take chances against the Bengals, winners of four straight and a young team that's willing to take these types of risks.

If Dallas doesn't take chances in favorable situations like second-and-one from their own 45-yard line, the Bengals will eat the Cowboys alive, no pun intended. Cincinnati is a hungry team (again, no pun intended) that will take advantage of any hesitance Dallas shows, so don't be surprised if the Cowboys end up punting following second-and-two after Garrett sticks that itchy trigger finger in his pocket because he's scared to take a shot in a favorable situation. The Bengals won't only recognize that fear, but they'll feed off it after they get the ball back and they're a team that can put the opposition away, especially if that opposition shows hesitation like the Cowboys regularly do.

In short, the game rests entirely in Garrett's hands. He doesn't call the defensive plays, but he'll put Ryan's unit in extremely tough situations by basically giving the ball away with poor play-calling. Sorry, but I have no faith in him whatsoever. My prediction: Bengals 33, Cowboys 24.

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