Don't be surprised if Cowboys and Bengals meet again -- in February

11:41 PM CDT on Sunday, August 8, 2010
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Tim Cowlishaw / Columnist

CANTON, Ohio – It's a feeling I've had since before the Cowboys were scheduled to play the Bengals here in the Hall of Fame game, and, no, it's not related to my prediction that Cincinnati's other major pro team is World Series-bound.

The feeling might have been enhanced by the five-way Skyline chili I had for lunch in Cleveland on Sunday, but that special feeling could have been something else entirely. Regardless, I've had the sense for some time that the Cowboys and Bengals are going to meet again.

In Cowboys Stadium.

In February.

Now you have to understand it's difficult to find meaningful support for your Super Bowl predictions when teams are competing in their first of five preseason games.

Dallas' 16-7 victory didn't dismiss the notion that this could be the Bengals' year any more than it confirmed Cowboys fans' hopes that their team is destined for the rare treat of playing a Super Bowl at home.

The bad almost invariably outweighs the good in the exhibition season. Mistakes and injuries always seem more important than successful plays of any kind.

This was true Sunday night when Jason Witten's backup, John Phillips, was in the process of putting together a highlight reel with four catches for 60 yards before leaving the game with a knee injury.

It was true since the Cowboys' only touchdown was scored by linebacker Brandon Sharpe, an undrafted rookie from Texas Tech.

Likewise, whatever good the Cowboys' first and second offensive units might have achieved was offset by the team fumbling three times in the first three possessions.

Felix Jones fumbled near the goal line, an especially disturbing outcome even if the Bengals were offside on the play. Their infraction had nothing to do with Jones, the back that Cowboys fans are hoping to see enjoy a breakout season, losing the ball inside the 5-yard line.

Fumbles by backup quarterback Jon Kitna (recovered by backup center Travis Bright) and long shot running back Herb Donaldson (recovered by Cincinnati) were more damaging in this particular game but less harmful in the long run.

If Donaldson has a fumbling problem, it's probably someone else's issue. If Jones becomes a fumbler, it's the Cowboys' problem.

As for Tony Romo, he and the passing attack were fine until they got a whiff of the end zone. Romo went 5-for-10 for 59 yards. But three incompletions starting on first-and-goal forced Dallas to settle for the first of three David Buehler field goals, this one from only 20 yards.

Buehler hooked his only long try of the night from 49 yards. As someone used to booming kickoffs as deep as he can, Buehler will have to overcome the tendency to hook on longer attempts if he is to settle in as a reliable kicker.

But Dallas' defense, whether facing Carson Palmer, Terrell Owens and the first unit for two series, or the second string for the rest of the first half, was dominant.

Palmer completed two of five passes – both to Owens – for 18 yards and was sacked once. The Bengals had three first downs in the opening half and 67 total yards on 24 plays.

Cowboys coach Wade Phillips couldn't have hoped for a defense to look more proficient right out of the gate.

As for my feelings of Bengals greatness just around the corner, they remain unchanged by the limited number of meaningful plays that Sunday's game produced. This was a playoff team a year ago. It should be considerably better in the passing department regardless of any impact Owens might have.

The arrival of other receivers – whether veterans Matt Jones and injured Antonio Bryant or rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma) and rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley (Texas) – can only help.

Palmer had to finish last season playing with a sprained thumb on his left hand, even reaching across his body to deliver handoffs to protect it. Being healthier a year removed from shoulder surgery should elevate his status.

Mike Zimmer's defense was very good a year ago (fourth in total yards, sixth in scoring defense) and has a chance to upgrade its sack totals as shown in the second quarter when Michael Johnson broke free to sack Kitna.

As we have barely made it into August, both teams have miles to travel before thinking about football in February.

That doesn't stop me from thinking they have a real chance to meet again when it matters.