Cowboys starters look ready for opening night after solid performance against Bengals

What the Dallas Cowboys did Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in the 24-18 preseason victory against the Cincinnati Bengals will mean little when the regular season starts in 14 days.

But if you are looking for a little optimism, a little something to feel good about heading into the opener against the New York Giants in this same building, then the Cowboys’ solid, even impressive, play in what was the dress rehearsal for the season against a Bengals team that is considered a Super Bowl contender in the AFC means a great deal.

Quarterback Tony Romo, who played the full first half for the first time in three preseason games, was accurate and error free, completing 13 of 18 passes for 137 yards against a strong Bengals’ defense.

He threw touchdowns passes of 5 and 12 yards to receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, respectively.

His deliberate and mistake-free play included two sacks — one in which he purposely dove into the ground — and a throw away.

And this was all behind a reshuffled offensive line that had right tackle Doug Free starting at right guard for the first time with backup Jermey Parnell at right tackle and Mackenzy Bernadeau moving from right guard to left guard.

A first-team Cowboys’ offense that struggled in the red zone all last season scored two red zone touchdowns in the game — its first two scores of the preseason after failing to get in the end zone on five series in the previous two games.

Bryant continued a magnificent preseason with six catches for 54 yards and a jump-ball touchdown against tight coverage. Austin’s training camp and preseason have been overshadowed by Bryant’s excellent play, but Austin showed he’s healthy for the regular season with four catches for 59 yards and the touchdown.

The Cowboys, who turned the ball over six times in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 17, had no giveaways on offense.

What also shouldn’t be overlooked is the strong and seemingly dominant play by the Cowboys’ defense.

The Cowboys led 14-7 at halftime with the Bengals getting their only touchdown on a 75-yard punt return by Brandon Tate. That only happened because punter Chris Jones had to re-kick after hitting the videoboard in the middle of the field.

It is only the second time since the stadium opened in 2009 that the board was hit. The first came in the first game at the stadium by punter A.J. Trapasso of the Tennessee Titans in a preseason game.

The Cowboys’ first-team defense, which is playing without tackle Jay Ratliff and end Anthony Spencer, hasn’t given up a touchdown in the preseason.

The Bengals, led by former TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, had only one good drive in the first half. They drove from their own 42 to the Cowboys’ 20 the first time they had the ball. On a third-and-11 play, Dalton hit receiver Marvin Jones over the middle, but safety Barry Church forced a fumble and cornerback Brandon Carr recovered.

The Cowboys got another turnover, the third of the game in the third quarter, when backup safety Jeff Heath drilled receiver Cobi Hamilton on the sideline. Cornerback Micah Pellerin recovered.

Xavier Brewer’s interception in the final seconds of the fourth quarter gave the Cowboys a fourth turnover and ninth of the preseason. They had only 16 in 16 regular-season games last season.

Also considered a bright spot was some tough love from coach Jason Garrett and bounce-back performance from running back DeMarco Murray.

Murray was seemingly benched in the first quarter by Garrett after a fumble. The Cowboys recovered, but Murray was replaced by backup Phillip Tanner for the remainder of the half. Tanner was on the field for both Cowboys touchdown drives, rushing 14 times for 39 yards in the first half.

Murray returned to the field in the third quarter when Romo, Bryant and Austin were done for the evening.

He rushed eight times for 45 yards on his only drive of the period. The highlight was as 7-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Kyle Orton.

Murray broke five tackles to reach the end zone, capping a 14-play, 86-yard drive.

The Cowboys are 2-2 in the preseason and will meet the Houston Texans on Thursday at AT&T Stadium in the final tuneup before the opener against the New York Giants.

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