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Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio Weather: 44°, Cloudy Attendance: 10,322
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) A week after the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the spring, they kicked longtime quarterback Andy Dalton to the curb.
The nine-year veteran's exit ended an era in Cincinnati, but clearly it was time for the team and Dalton to move on. A few days later he caught on with the Dallas Cowboys as a back-up to franchise quarterback Dak Prescott. Understandably, he didn't expect to see much action.
But 2020 has a way of shaking things up, as much for the 33-year-old Dalton as anybody.
Because of an injury to Prescott, Dalton is returning to Cincinnati as the Cowboys' starting quarterback on Sunday against the woeful Bengals (2-9-1). In a twist, Cincinnati lost Burrow to a season-ending knee injury and will start an inexperienced former practice squad player against Dallas.
Dalton acknowledged it's going to be "a little weird," but downplayed the homecoming storyline.
"Every time you have the opportunity to compete, you want to win and all of that," he said Thursday. "This one happens to be against a former team, a team that I played for for a long time. It's going to be a little different to be on the other sideline, be in the other locker room, all that kind of stuff. But preparation is the same and you're going about it the same way, trying to do everything you can to win."
Dalton got an unexpected chance to show he could still play when Prescott, who hadn't missed a game in his first four years in the league, was lost for the season to an ankle injury on Oct. 11.
Dalton then had his own challenges. He was sidelined with a concussion and dealt with a bout with COVID-19 before going 1-2 as the starter in the last three games as the Cowboys (3-9) fell further out of contention in the downtrodden NFC East. Dallas lost to the Ravens 34-17 on Tuesday despite Dalton throwing for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
"He was decisive getting the ball out of his hands, and I thought he played probably one of his better games as a Dallas Cowboy," coach Mike McCarthy said.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Dalton was much loved in Cincinnati and active in the community. But the window to fulfill his promise on the field opened and closed with only limited success.
He left the Bengals with a 70-61-2 record, but couldn't win in the playoffs. Cincinnati lost a wild-card game every season from 2011-15, and it's been downhill from there for the frustrated organization and fan base.
"It's going to be weird," Bengals veteran running back Giovani Bernard said about seeing his old friend at Paul Brown Stadium in a Cowboys uniform. "He's done a lot for me and my family and some of the guys on the team that are still here in Cincinnati. He's done a lot for this city and a lot of people. You can't ever forget that. Obviously, there's football, but there's obviously a relationship side to it all, too."
MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT EFFORT
The Cowboys have generated questions about effort after multiple games this season, leading McCarthy earlier this year to warn it was dangerous to make such claims of professional athletes. Safety Xavier Woods suggested it wasn't possible for NFL players to give maximum effort on every snap.
In the loss to Baltimore, former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, now a Fox commentator, called out Woods for not being more aggressive in challenging Lamar Jackson on one of the quarterback's first-down runs. The Cowboys, who gave up a franchise-record 307 rushing yards to Cleveland in Week 4, allowed 294 against the Ravens.
SAME OLD SAME OLD
The Bengals might have different quarterbacks this year, but they're the same old Bengals. A run of seriously bad luck hasn't helped.
Burrow looked great and seemed to be turning the ship around before he got hurt. Cincinnati is 0-2 since behind Brandon Allen, who hadn't played in a year before starting against the Giants on Nov. 29. The offensive line, which wasn't great in the first place, has been a patchwork because of multiple injuries and COVID-19 issues.
Coach Zac Taylor is in his second year with the Bengals and is sitting on a horrible 4-23-1 record. Whether he can get the team to play hard in the season's last four games may help determine whether he keeps his job.
The Cowboys have the worst record in the NFC but haven't been eliminated in the league's only division without a team with a winning record. Those playoff hopes in the NFC East took a big hit in Week 13 with the loss to Baltimore while the co-leaders, the New York Giants and Washington, beat Seattle and previously undefeated Pittsburgh, respectively. Dallas is more likely to end up with a high draft pick while missing the postseason for the second straight year.
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed.
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Updated December 10, 2020