Perhaps it’s time to adjust the perception and expectations of the Dallas Cowboys.
This is not a team that is holding on and trying to tread water until injured quarterback Tony Romo returns.
The Cowboys should no longer be considered a team that has feasted on bad-to-mediocre competition.
The Cowboys are a team on the rise and have the makings of a legitimate playoff contender, despite Romo’s continued absence and the injuries sidelining other key players, such as wide receiver Dez Bryant and cornerback Orlando Scandrick.
The Cowboys are sitting alone in first place in the NFC East after arguably their most impressive performance in two years, a 28-14 total domination of the Cincinnati Bengals before 91,653 equally amazed fans at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys (4-1), who are tied for the second-best record in the NFL behind the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (5-0), are a half game ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) atop the division standings.
“That was a good win for us,” tight end Jason Witten said. “This is the best team win we’ve had in a long time from just jumping out on the start like that against a good football team. Rolling right now. That’s a good win. Keep moving forward.”
Cincinnati (2-3) and its vaunted defense was suppose to provide the stiffest challenge to these upstart Cowboys, led by dueling rookie of the year candidates in quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott — especially considering the Bengals had a 10-day break since their 22-7 victory against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 29.
But this was no contest. The Cowboys dominated on both sides of the ball, while the rookies led the way on offense.
Prescott completed 18 of 24 passes for 227 yards with one touchdown rushing and one touchdown passing. He has three rushing touchdowns on the season, the most for a Cowboys quarterback since Danny White had four in 1984.
Elliott rushed for 134 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. It was his third straight 100-yard game.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones acknowledged he has a different view of his team and this season from when they started, and he credits the two rookies.
“They are exceptional,” Jones said. “Maybe two of the best we’ve ever seen.”
The game was decided almost as soon as it started. The Cowboys jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and 28-0 early in the third quarter, when Elliott went 60 yards untouched on the first play after a Bengals punt.
It was the fourth consecutive win for the Cowboys, who tied their win total from last year when they finished 4-12.
“Just says we weren’t very good last year I think,” Witten said. “Bottom line we weren’t able to win enough games. I think we’ve learned a lot from last year and those experiences. I’m proud of the group. We’re not just better than anybody else. We have to go earn that. That mindset has helped us get those guys and continue to play well.”
It was the Cowboys second consecutive home win after losing eight straight in Arlington.
That the Cowboys have been able to do this without Romo is no longer the impressive part, which is another thing they learned from last year.
The Cowboys went 1-11 without an injured Romo in 2015.
But with Romo out for at least the first six games with a fractured bone in his back, Prescott has been more than up to the challenge in record-setting fashion.
Prescott set the NFL rookie record for most consecutive passes to start a season without an interception at 155. He is just eight away from breaking New England quarterback Tom Brady’s NFL record of 162 passes to start a career without an interception.
“It’s a record,” Prescott said. “It is meant to be broken. If I don’t break it, I’m sure someone else will. It’s not anything I think about going into the game. I think it serves to my preparation I put in each and every week and some good fortune. I will let y’all have fun with that.”
The fun is just beginning with Prescott’s impressive play.
There is now a looming decision to make on whether to keep him as the starter even when Romo returns to health, most likely for the Oct. 30 match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Cowboys never expected to be 4-1 without Romo. If they win at the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and get to 5-1, how can you replace Prescott? The question is even legitimate at 4-2.
“Tony is working very hard on his rehab and he’s making progress,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Dak’s done a real good job taking advantage of the opportunity. I think our team has impressed Dak. He’s come in and done what we’ve asked him to do. He’s focused on that. Tony’s focused on coming back.”
Prescott made it look easy Sunday because of his efficiency in completing passes to six receivers, with Terrance Williams leading the way with five catches for 70 yards.
“Obviously, Zeke ran really well,” Garrett said. “But a big part of this game was the efficiency of our passing game. Just seemed like Dak read things well out there, threw to the right guy. He was accurate, made big plays and big throws. We’re lucky to have him.”
The passing game was balanced by the Elliott-led rushing attack that produced 180 yards on 29 carries.
Elliott leads the NFL in rushing with 546 yards and has set a Cowboys record for most yards by a rookie in his first five games. He had 140 against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago and 138 against the San Francisco 49ers last week, while feasting on the dominant play of the offensive line.
Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith didn’t do that as rookies.
“The offensive line is the best in football,” Elliott said. “They make things easy for me. They are playing their tails off. If you watch film from Week 1 until now, it looks like two different backs. You’re supposed to get better.”
What the team’s maligned, but improving, defense did in shutting down former TCU quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals should not be overlooked. Dalton completed 29 of 41 passes for 269 yards and two late touchdowns.
The Cowboys had a season-high four sacks. It was their most sacks since five against the New England Patriots last season.
“I thought we played good complementary football,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “Cincinnati has been in the playoffs a bunch of years, they’re a team that’s very, very good and we knew we had to come in and play a certain level to beat them and I think we did that. The key is to build on it. We have that mentality that we’re not going to flinch, so hopefully we can, have a tough test next week in Green Bay, hopefully we can build off this one.”
The Packers at historic Lambeau Field is another chance for the Cowboys to continue to change perceptions.