CINCINNATI -- The Dallas Cowboys are America’s Team. Their fan base stretches across the country. Their stadium is the envy of every team in the NFL.
That’s the Cowboy brand.
The Cowboy team, however, doesn’t have the cachet it once did.
"Their stadium is unbelievable," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “Their facilities are unreal. From the aspect of how nice they have things, they’re still seen that way.
"I don’t think football-wise anybody looks at them any different than any team in the league."
In fact, over the last five seasons, if you were setting up a model of an NFL franchise, you’d choose the Bengals over the Cowboys. Consider: The Bengals have made the playoffs each of those five years. The Cowboys have made the playoffs once in the same span. The Bengals are 44-27-1 since 2011. The Cowboys are 43-41, and they needed this year’s 3-1 start to get them over .500.
The Bengals go to Dallas on Sunday for a 4:25 p.m. game -- the Bengals’ first regular-season game at AT&T Stadium.
But there is still one big difference in perception of the two franchises.
"They got championships," Bengal cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. "That’s something we’re fighting for. As far as that goes, that’s where our franchise is trying to be. They’re already there. They’ve got multiples."
The Cowboys have won five Super Bowls. The last one was in 1995. It capped a great run by the dynasty that won three in four years.
Since 1995, the Cowboys have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Still, they are viewed as one of the top franchises in the NFL, particularly by fans.
"I’m from Alabama. There’s a lot of Dallas Cowboys fans," Kirkpatrick said. "We don’t have a pro football team. Most people lean toward Dallas or Atlanta."
The Cowboys are coming off a 4-12 year, but Jerry Jones didn’t react to an awful year the way he used to. He didn’t fire the coach. He didn’t spend on free agents.
So far, it’s worked. The Cowboys are 3-1.
The Cowboys are trying to get back on track using the same formula as the Bengals -- the stability approach. Head coach Jason Garrett is in his seventh year. He survived a 6-10, a 4-12 and three 8-8 years. Jones never afforded that to Chan Gailey and Dave Campo. Heck, Wade Phillips was gone after an 11-5 year and a playoff flameout.
And the Cowboys, formerly big spenders in free agency, have built with the draft.
"I think we have been on record as saying I don’t think that’s where you build a football team - in free agency," Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The Bengals get accused of building through the draft because it’s the cheap way to go. Dallas is doing it because the Cowboys discovered that paying free agents doesn’t always pay off in wins.
“It’s not about the budget,” Jones said. “It’s about getting a player to equate to the dollar. It’s not about the budget. The budget is a bad word for this. It’s the value. We stick with the value of the player. It’s not about the budget.”
The approach has worked so far this year, although no one quite knows what to make of this Cowboy team. Dak Prescott, a rookie, has started all four games for the injured Tony Romo. Prescott has not thrown an interception in 131 attempts. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, the rookie from Ohio State, is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games.
"They’re playing good football," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They’re doing a good job offensively -- running the football, winning third down, 50 percent conversion on third down, four-yards-per-carry. The quarterback has been very good. He doesn’t even throw the ball into traffic.
"That’s been their key so far. We have to play a really good football game."
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said similar things about the Dallas defense.
“They’re just sound,” Dalton said. “They’re not a team that does a whole lot of different things. But they’re really sound in what they do. They make plays and play hard.”
Even with Dallas off to a 3-1 start and the game at Dallas, the Bengals are a 1-point favorite. Vegas is not buying the Cowboy mystique.
But it’s still alive. Just ask a Bengals player.
"I believe they are still America’s Team," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “Wherever you go, no matter what city you’re in, you see the star somewhere. There’s a lot of fans across the country.
“That’s what makes this game special for me: A chance to go at America’s Team."