Updated: 6:30 a.m.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, who knows a good comeback when he sees one, told Andy Dalton so when the two opposing quarterbacks met after what should be the Bengals’ turnaround game of a turnaround season.
“He told me just to keep doing what I’m doing,” Dalton said after authoring the first fourth-quarter comeback victory of his career. “He says he’s heard good things.”
Fitzpatrick saw both the good and the bad Sunday on a bizarre day at Paul Brown Stadium. After playing the worst football since he can remember in the first half, Dalton did things in the second half not done since Carson Palmer’s first season as a starter in 2004.
Like Palmer, Dalton got his first home win with a late-drive field goal. In his fourth NFL start, he also led the Bengals back from at least a 14-point deficit in the second half for the first time since Palmer did it in Baltimore in 2004 in his 12th NFL start.
And Dalton did what Palmer didn’t do last year and that’s beat his former understudy, Fitzpatrick, the cannon of the comeback. Fitzpatrick came in with the NFL record of leading back-to-back comebacks of 21 points. And that was after leading the greatest halftime comeback in the history of the game 11 months ago in the very same building.
But this one should be historic for a lot of other reasons. For it was the day that if Dalton's teammates ever doubted him, they won’t anymore after emerging from an emotionally-charged halftime.
“People have games like that,” Green said. “But it’s how you finish. The great ones finish the game. He’s going to be a great one, he showed that today. You rarely see a young guy like that in that position he’s in there with the Bengals to be that poised and that confident in the pocket after having a bad half.”
“That was a game where we learned to just put our heads down and play rather than worry about everything else,” he said. “I think you always try to build yourself up and believe in yourself and so many people try to tear you down. I think guys realized today we don’t have to worry about what people think of us. If we put our heads down and play football the way we can, we can be a very good team.”
Whitworth said the offense has been caught in the negativity.
“Worrying about what people say. Who can and can’t do stuff,” he said. “Instead of just saying all 11 are out there to win and play (well).”
Dueling with Fitzpatrick and the magic of his undefeated Bills, Dalton shot back karma of his own as he brought his guys out of a bitter locker room bickering with a 14-point deficit.
“Nothing serious,” Whitworth said. “Guys were fired up. It was just, ‘I want the ball, I want to block this, I want to block.’ That’s football. Instead of getting down and fighting among ourselves, we came out and said, ‘Let’s stop talking and let’s stop arguing and let’s just keep our heads down and fight and scrap and have a chance to win.' ”
And the Bengals have the ultimate scrapper. After looking more like Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing’’ in the first half with a not-even-close-7-of-20 passing-and-two-picks, Dalton was winning in the second half with 11-of-16 in the second half for 182 yards, no picks and a touchdown each running and passing.
Asked if the first half was the worst he’s played since he’s been here, Dalton said, “It’s the worst I’ve played in a long time.”
But the kid listens. After a week offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had been after him to use his feet more, he made a huge scramble and throw in the tying drive for a 17-yard gain to tight end Jermaine Gresham on third-and-eight.
“That’s all him,” Gresham said. “He was out there making a play.”
And the kid can learn. Dalton made the ultimate scrap play when he scrambled for the first down with 45 seconds left at the Bengals 46 by stretching his arm for the stick on the sideline on third-and-three on a play that needed to hold up on a review.
“I couldn’t believe they didn’t give it to him the first time,” Green said. “I mean, he went in there and when he got it he bounced up off the ground; it was a great play.”
“He made a huge play there,” Leonard said. “That was a great effort. That basically won us the game. I think we were going to go for it on fourth down if we didn’t get it, but that was a big thing.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis certainly recognized it. After Dalton didn’t stretch for the final yard the Bengals never got on fourth down in the Denver loss, Lewis said, “He did this time.”
Of course, he got some help in the second half when the Bengals started running the ball. In the first half, for some inexplicable reason, the worse Dalton threw the ball, the less the Bengals ran it.
A rhythm and timing passer, Dalton agreed that the recharged running game helped him find his way.
“In the second half, we had really good tempo up front. We were getting in and out of the huddle really well and we did some really good things,” Dalton said. “It really helped us out. We did what we had to do and we made some really good adjustments at halftime to come out with the win.”
If you’re looking for a magic transcript on why Dalton played so well in the second half compared to the first half, you won’t get it. But that’s why he did. Because everything is close-to-the-vest same. When he plopped down in his postgame news conference, he looked like he did when he arrived for his mid-week newser.
“I feel like I’ve played in a lot of games and have been through a lot,” Dalton said. “In a game of four quarters, you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. You have to go out and stay on even keel. Everybody needs to see that. If you getting too excited at times in can hurt you and if you’re too low it can hurt you. It’s just my attitude and it’s just what I do.”
“Just what I do.”
Leonard, who lived through the Cardiac Cats of ’09 and Palmer’s remarkable seven last-possession drives that either tied or won games or took the lead, shook his head over what Dalton does.
“For a rookie, he’s got great poise,” Leonard said. “If things go wrong, it doesn’t really bother him. He comes back in and makes plays. Obviously he makes rookie mistakes, but he doesn’t make very many of them. He’s going to be a great quarterback and he’s a good quarterback already.
“I look at him like a vet. He’s in there, he’s poised, he calls the plays fine. He gets out there and he executes.”
Looking back on it, Dalton thought he and his teammates might have been all a little too pumped at the beginning of the game before they reined it in.
“Then we got it together; we knew we were in the game,” Dalton said.
His teammates figured it out, too.
“I’m looking forward to what he does in the future,” Leonard said. “And the next couple of games.”