On a normal NFL Sunday, a Dallas Cowboys team led by QB Andy Dalton playing at Cincinnati - where Dalton once starred for the Bengals - would be the easy and obvious storyline.
"A little weird,'' Dalton said in predicting the feeling he'd have of playing against his decade-long employer.
But for the Cowboys right now, it's ... a lotta weird - and the weirdness includes a dominant 30-7 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.
"We took a step today,'' coach Mike McCarthy said, calling it "a win that we needed."
Dallas spent the week in the midst of questioning its own on-field effort, admitting to a season-altering strategic gaffe and juggling the value of a win over the equally hapless Bengals - or finding a way to "organically tank'' in Cincinnati, thus increasing its status in the April NFL Draft.
This Cowboys blowout means chalk one up to fixing the effort, starting on defense.
In the very early going, Dallas got a pair of takeaways, one involving Demarcus Lawrence and Jourdan Lewis ...
Earl Thomas Finally Tracked Down & Arrested by Police on Felony Charge
In the spring of 2018, the Cowboys failed in an attempt to trade for seven-time Pro Bowler by offering a second-round pick to Seattle.
'He Has the Gifts': Rookie DE Sam Williams Draws Raves from Cowboys Coaches
“I think we’d all agree that Sam Williams looks like a guy that was born to play professional football,’’ McCarthy says.
Rookie Tyler Smith: Already Locked In as Cowboys Starter?
Position flex matters - but not as much as Dallas’ screaming need for a starting left tackle.
And then a highly impactful one capped by Aldon Smith going the other way for a 78-yard TD.
"I know I’m really fast,'' Smith said, laughing and fighting off playful criticism from teammates, "so as soon as I picked it up, I knew it’d be impossible to get caught."
Dallas' defense was still vulnerable in so many ways. But the Cowboys grabbed three fumbles in the first half; that counts as "effort.'' And when Tyrone Crawford recorded late-game sacks on consecutive plays? "Effort.''
Cincinnati doesn't have Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, their No. 1 pick from a year ago and the reason Dalton was set free, on the field; he's out for the season, as is Dallas star QB Dak Prescott. The two clubs therefore entered Week 14 rudderless, each hovering near a top-three slot in the Tank-a-Thon.
Tank goodness ..., er, thank goodness, for Dalton here, who was highly efficient in throwing a pair of TD passes against his old mates.
After the game, his teammates presented him with the game ball and, shy of champagne, splashed him with water.
"A lot of water being thrown," Dalton said. "This one was special."
The Dallas win elevates the Cowboys in the standings to 4-9. ... but hurts the Cowboys in the race for a higher draft pick. For now, the Cowboys are done making concessions about effort and about contention; the state of the NFC East allows them to dream about the playoffs.
And so does the overall work of this beleaguered defense. While many have called for the firing of coach Mike McCarthy's coordinator Mike Nolan - after all, the NFL mark for most points allowed is 533, held by Baltimore in 1981, and Dallas entered Sunday having allowed 393 - giving up just seven points is a feather in the Cowboys' collective cap.
On a normal NFL Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys should beat a bad Cincy team. This was not a normal Sunday; it was "a little weird.'' But the Dallas Cowboys did it, anyway.