By Schuyler Dixon
AP Sports Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas — Andy Dalton has an idea how defensive coordinators are preparing for Dak Prescott, because the Cincinnati veteran remembers being a rookie starter.
As the surprising Dallas newcomer prepares for the visiting Bengals in a homecoming of sorts for Dalton on Sunday, Prescott understands better every week what the former TCU quarterback means when he says “teams are trying to take your stuff away.”
For example, the still-perfect Prescott, with a rookie-record 131 passes without an interception to start his career, points to last week’s rally from a two-touchdown deficit for a 24-17 win at San Francisco.
“Saw some new looks, saw them throw a bunch of different fronts, gave me some different looks that I hadn’t seen,” said Prescott, the first Dallas quarterback to start his career with four straight interception-free games.
“So it’s good for the learning experience and to mark down some more looks I’ve seen.”
Dalton, visiting the Cowboys for the first time in the regular season, can attest to the difficulty of what Prescott is doing since he threw 66 interceptions in his first four seasons.
But the native Texan made the playoffs all four of those seasons and was headed there again last season with what figured to be a career low in interceptions when he broke his right thumb with three regular-season games remaining and missed a fifth straight postseason loss for the Bengals since he was drafted.
Now Dalton has two picks in four games — one on a deflection — and leads the AFC in yards passing. But his focus is more on getting the Bengals (2-2) back over .500 after they started 8-0 last season.
“It’s the team that gets hot at the end of the year and is playing the best,” Dalton said. “We feel like we have that type of team.”
Prescott is a victory away from ensuring the Cowboys (3-1) a winning record for the potential Oct. 30 return of Tony Romo from his latest back injury. Dallas was 1-13 without Romo in the three seasons before Mississippi State’s winningest quarterback showed up.
“It’s hard to do some of the stuff he’s been able to do,” Dalton said. “The big thing that he’s done is he’s taken care of the ball. When you do that, you give your team the best chance to win.”
Things to consider in the first regular-season meeting between these teams since 2012, a 20-19 victory for the Cowboys in Cincinnati, a day after Dallas practice squad player Jerry Brown died in a car crash that led to an intoxication manslaughter conviction against teammate Josh Brent:
BACK IN THE FOLD: Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is set for his second game back from a three-game suspension for repeated illegal hits, while Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence returns from a four-game ban for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Burfict played the most snaps among Cincinnati linebackers in his season debut. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “That’s part of my job description, come in and be a leader.”
THEN AND NOW: Dalton and top receiver A.J. Green came into the NFL together five years ago, the same way Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott did. Elliott leads the NFL with 412 yards rushing. “The kind of people they are, we benefited from them as people as well and their personalities,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
RED ZONE WOES: Cincinnati ranks last in the NFL in getting touchdowns after crossing the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Bengals have only four touchdowns in 13 such chances. They’ve also been bad on third down, converting 28 percent, ahead of only Miami. Those were points of emphasis this week for a team piling up yards, but not points.
WATCH THE BACK: Dallas Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith has missed two straight games with back issues, although he returned to practice on a limited basis to start the week. Cowboys K Dan Bailey is struggling with a sore back as well. Cincinnati TE Tyler Eifert, brother-in-law of Dallas RT Zack Martin, has a back issue that could delay his season debut after offseason surgery to repair an ankle injury from the Pro Bowl.
PURPLE POWER: Dalton, who grew up in Houston, said he expected as many as a couple of dozen family members and friends. And then there’s the extended family of TCU, where he had a school-record 42 wins, including the Rose Bowl in his finale after the 2010 season. “I feel like there are a lot of TCU fans who are Cowboys fans as well,” he said. “I hope their Horned Frog blood bleeds a little more than their Cowboys blood and they will be rooting for the Bengals.”