Bengals on Red alert with AFC North in the fold

Posted Dec 23, 2013

Andrew Whitworth says Andy Dalton is the symbol of his team and on Sunday, Dalton offered another franchise quarterback performance.

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Andrew Whitworth says Andy Dalton is the symbol of his team and on Sunday, Dalton offered another franchise quarterback performance to help the Bengals prove they can win the crunch-time games with elite performances by their best players.

With whispers turning into dull roars about Cincinnati's playoff legitimacy in the wake of the terrible 13 minutes in Pittsburgh, Dalton vaporized the Vikings with a career-best passer rating of 136.5 as the Bengals raised their record to 3-1 in December and to 7-2 the last two Decembers with a 42-14 victory that gave Cincinnati the AFC North title.

Like Carson Palmer, Dalton has a division title in his third season. Like Kenny Anderson he's got back-to-back 10-win seasons. Like Boomer Esiason, he's on the verge of an unbeaten season at home.

"He symbolizes what this team is," Whitworth said. "People can talk about this team and what we can't accomplish and we keep bouncing back and accomplishing it and next week is no different. We've got an opportunity to seal up everything we want."

The Bengals need to beat the Ravens at PBS next Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Patriots have to lose to the Bills in order to get a playoff bye and the No. 2 seed. And the Bengals have become a team no one wants to play at home, where they are relaxed, dominant and 7-0. After zipping four touchdown passes Sunday, Dalton has thrown 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions at home in engineering 34 points per game.

"This is the most relaxed we've been at this point in the season," Whitworth said. "I really think this team is mature to the point that it realizes that last week was exactly what it was: a crazy first quarter. We know what we are and how good we are and if we play like this we're a tough team to beat."

Relaxed? Dalton is playing with patting-the-ball-in-the-pocket confidence as he proves if he is protected and receivers get open, he'll deliver the ball quickly and deadly enough to get through the big games. With no one touching him in the first three quarters, Dalton converted six third downs of at least seven yards to four different receivers and his 16-yard arrow to tight end Jermaine Gresham down the wide open middle of the Vikings Cover 2 on third-and-10 blew it open at 28-7 just before the two-minute warning of the first half.

"I've got to give him the game ball today," said wide receiver A.J. Green, who caught two of the touchdowns. "He's playing his butt off, having fun."

None of Dalton's receivers had 100 yards and neither running back reached 25 yards rushing. But Dalton was at his point guard best. With the Vikings forced to start old friend Shaun Prater for just the second time in his career at cornerback and Green and Marvin Jones taking turns burning cornerback Chris Cook, Green rolled up 97 yards and Jones's 85 yards included gargantuan third-down conversions of 18 and 21 yards.

(In the showdown of the three Bengals fifth-round picks from 2012, the Bengals won. Prater got hurt, came back, and got beat by wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for a touchdown in the red zone while Jones closes in on 50 catches and safety George Iloka got his first NFL interception.)

"We made the plays in man coverage," Green said. "They were rolling (coverage to me), but they were trying not to get beat deep so they were bailing a lot. A lot of bailing out, so they were falling back at the end and a lot of underneath stuff was open."

But Dalton and Green beat the Vikings deep on a second-and-eight from the Minnesota 29 late in the first quarter when Green lined up in the slot isolated on Cook. Dalton checked to a "go" ball to Green, who easily ran past Cook for an over-the-shoulder touchdown catch.

"I gave him a fake inside and released outside," Green said.

He was able to do that because Dalton had time in the pocket to review all 47 of his NFL starts and his 29-18 record. Even with an offensive line shuffle in the wake of right tackle Andre Smith's sprained ankle with seven minutes left in the third quarter, the protection remained impeccable. Smith says he'll be OK for next week and that's fine because before Anthony Collins moved from left tackle to right tackle, he was stoning Hall of Famer Jared Allen.

(Rookie running back Giovani Bernard threw in two crushing blocks in blitz pickup on the same drive, the long TD to Green and the 18-yard throw to Jones over the middle on third-and-10.)

When the game was decided in the fourth quarter, the Bengals allowed back-to-back sacks, which means in the last five games they've allowed one sack with the game on the line.

Is it any wonder that Dalton's passer rating is 108 this December, compared to last December's 68, not counting the finale against the Ravens that didn't count?

"It’s a total team effort by these guys. He’s got some weapons. Guys are coming to work. Like I always think, it starts up front, too," said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "When the guys give him time to throw, great things are going to happen; we just have to make sure we do a good job of protecting him. But like at the end of the game, I gave him two deep drops and we got a sack back-to-back. That was stupid. But when he has protection, he’s pretty good."

The Bengals gave up 18 sacks in the December games that mattered last year and with all this time Dalton has been virtually flawless with 131 straight passes without an interception stretching back to late in the first half against San Diego on Dec. 1.

"We’re accepting the fact that sometimes we’re going to have to punt or throw it away," Gruden said. "That’s just the way the game is. Defenses are good, coordinators are good. As long as we don’t make a mistake on a key turnover, we’ll have a chance to win every game."

Meanwhile, Dalton continued to be his impassive self as he preps for his first home playoff game. He knows until he wins one—home or road—his naysayers are going to keep naying.

"We’re in a really good spot right now; we’ve just got to keep going," Dalton said. "We’ve done a lot this year; a lot the guys have gotten better — I think I’ve gotten better. We’ve just got to keep it going. We’ve got another big one next week at home, and then the fun begins that’s in front of us. I’m happy to be where we are, and we’ve just got to keep playing like we did today.”

Even Gruden can be amazed at times how Dalton lets the criticism roll off his back.

"He’s taken a lot of bullets; a lot of fire at him," Gruden said.

"It bothers me more than it does him. That’s just the way it is and that’s just the nature of this profession and business. If you can’t handle any controversy or adversity then you’re in the wrong profession. You better go sell insurance. And that’s even hard nowadays. There’s not an easy job out there, but when everything that you do—when every pass and every snap that you take—is written about on message boards or are talked about on the radio, it’s hard."

But right now, at least, it looks easy.

"The statement is this team is resilient. It can bounce back (not) like years past," center Kyle Cook said of Sunday's narrative. "In the middle of the season, things looked great. Hopes were high as far as we led the division. Then it started to get tight. The race got close at the end. This team didn't fold up shop. We didn't pack it in. We didn't say we were going home. We came back and fought."

It turns out, so did their quarterback. Just the fourth one in history to make the NFL playoffs in his first three seasons as a pro.

"To be in the playoffs every year since I’ve been here is huge. It gives you a chance to accomplish your ultimate goal (of a Super Bowl win)," Dalton said. "It’s big that we’re going to be back there this year. It’s a huge goal for us, so it’s great to accomplish that. We’ve got to keep going; there’s a lot in front of us.”


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