Outside of an undefeated finish to the season from the New York Giants, the Cowboys will actually control their own destiny to the playoffs. That might say more about the state of the NFC East than anything else, but the fact remains that Dallas is very much alive in the playoff hunt. The toughest game remaining on their schedule may very well be this week’s trip to Cincinnati, where they’ll face a team with the most dominating group of offensive and defensive linemen in the NFL.
Cowboys’ Interior Line versus DT Geno Atkins
Spoiler alert: The Cowboys are going to lose this matchup. Guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau and center Ryan Cook simply can’t control Atkins throughout the course of an entire game. With a 9.2 percent pressure rate from the defensive tackle position—higher than that of DeMarcus Ware—Atkins could take over against perhaps the league’s worst trio of interior linemen. The question is whether or not the Cowboys can limit Atkins’ production enough that he doesn’t wreak havoc on the game plan. To do that, look for the Cowboys to double-team Atkins on most plays. We should also see more runs to the perimeter this week—something the Cowboys should be doing anyway.
WR Dez Bryant/Miles Austin versus Bengals’ Secondary
Bryant and Austin both stand 6’2’’ and weigh 225 and 219 pounds, respectively. The average height and weight of Cincinnati’s entire secondary—two safeties and three cornerbacks—is 5’10’’ and 195 pounds. Their largest player in the back end is cornerback Leon Hall who checks in at 5’11’’, 199 pounds. Cincinnati’s cornerbacks in particular have been outstanding all year, despite their small stature; Hall has allowed only 7.81 YPA in coverage and that’s actually the worst mark of all three cornerbacks. Still, you have to like the way Bryant and Austin match up. If Jason Garrett can put the receivers in position to use their big bodies to their advantage—such as on slants and jump balls—they’ll come out victorious in their individual battles.
Cowboys’ Secondary versus WR A.J. Green
Perhaps it isn’t a great sign that I’m listing entire position units for Dallas in their key matchups with individual players on Cincinnati, but stopping Green will obviously be a team effort for the ‘Boys. Leading the league with 10 touchdowns, Green will see his targets on Sunday—he’s averaging 10 per game in 2012. With no dynamic offensive threats other than Green, there’s no reason for the Cowboys to leave the elite second-year receiver in single-coverage. They especially need to be cognizant of Green on early downs; the Bengals run often on first down at 54.8 percent of snaps, but they also like to go deep off of play-action with a new set of chains. It isn’t surprising that quarterback Andy Dalton’s primary target on those looks is Green; fourth in the NFL with 29 targets of at least 20 yards, Green has been the recipient of 59.2 percent of Dalton’s deep passes.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.