Bengals a load on the road

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Andy Dalton literally gutted out a win on the road in Tampa last season.

Andy Dalton is a mirror of his team and his team doesn't mind. At the start of the NFL season neither is getting much love as they prepare to make their fifth consecutive post-season run.

"They're so quick to throw him under the bus, but he's a winner," said nose tackle Domata Peko before Wednesday's practice. "He's brought that winning culture ever since he's been here. We've got his back."

Sunday's opener in Oakland (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is as good as place as any to flex their muscles. Since he's been the Bengals quarterback the last four seasons in road games, a veritable minefield before then under head coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are six games over .500. In the previous eight seasons under Lewis they were 24-40. In the first four seasons of quarterback Carson Palmer, they were 15-17.  Dalton is five road wins away from having the most by a quarterback during his first five seasons in the league since the 1970 merger:

Ben Roethlisberger         2004       2008       23 wins

Matt Ryan                    2008       2012       23

Dan Marino                  1983       1987       23

Donovan McNabb           1999       2003       22

Tom Brady                   2001       2004       21

Joe Flacco                    2008       2012       21

Eli Manning                 2004       2008       21

This opener is supposed to be the coronation of Dalton's role as team leader after an offseason of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's personal missions underscoring the importance of leadership to his quarterback. By all accounts Dalton is more vocal and more engaged, but his 19-13 record away from Paul Brown Stadium already spoke volumes.

"I think he likes that environment. I think he likes people against him," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "This is a team that has thrived on that kind of environment. We like to go to places people don't think we can go and win."

It's a good thing because despite winning 40 regular-season games in four years, reaching the post-season all four years and teaming with wide receiver A.J. Green to generate the most production of any duo during their first four seasons in the NFL, Dalton continually gets grilled for not winning a play-off game.

"You can look at whatever you want," Dalton said. "There are stats out there that people aren't looking at. I don't care what people say. I care about winning games."

Most prognosticators, it seems, don't think the Bengals are going to win enough games to get back to the post-season, which seems to be sloppy oversight instead of a rude dismissal. The Bengals had the least turnover in the AFC North a year after they lost the division title by a half-game in the last four minutes of the season in Pittsburgh. They won 10 games despite not having their second-best wide receiver in Marvin Jones, their best receiving tight end in Tyler Eifert, and one of their top defensive lineman in Michael Johnson and all look ready to play in Oakland.  

"I think people are playing the odds," Whitworth said. "For sure this team can't be good five times in a row, they're saying. It's almost like they're saying, eventually there are more ups and downs in the league. I think that's what it is. It's not necessarily they don't think that we will be good.  But they're saying, surely this team can't do it a fifth year in a row to be right there."

And, as usual, they could care less.

"That's what I love about the Bengals," Peko said. "Every year people just look down on us so much.  Inside this locker room, inside this building we know we have to go out there and prove it."

What better place to prove it than the road? Lewis makes sure to shape the chip on the shoulder.

"Coach Lewis says it's us against the world," Peko said. "We've got nobody cheering for us there. It helps us rely on each other and we have to stick together. That's what I love about away games. It feels like the Bengals against everybody else. We just like to keep our head down and grind. We work hard. So when we go to away games, we're not hanging out at the freaking shopping malls. We're there on a business trip. That's how we take it. We handle our business."

Only the Broncos, Patriots, and 49ers, all at 21-11, have a better road record than Dalton's Bengals in the last four seasons. The Bengals are tied with Aaron Rodgers' Packers at 19-13 and Lewis has one explanation.

"Don't turn the ball over. The same thing whether you're playing out here at Paul Brown or on the road. Don't turn the ball over," Lewis said. "We have to do a great job of that. If you look at the opening games, the ones we've lost, we've lost in that battle. The ones we've won, we've won in that battle. That's the key. I think that's the key early in the season. I think that's the key in every situation."

Sure enough, in the two road openers Dalton has won (Cleveland and Baltimore) he's thrown two TDs and had no interceptions. In the two he lost (Baltimore and Chicago), he has two TDs and three interceptions.

"There are distractions all over the place," Dalton said of the road. "I think it's that extra focus all over that sets it apart."

If there is one quarterback that can break the 0-10 skein in Oakland, then maybe it is Dalton. The hex goes all the way back to the first season of the franchise, when both Dewey Warren and John Stofa quarterbacked in the first loss in The Coliseum.

So did Greg Cook (1969), Ken Anderson (1971, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1980), Neil O'Donnell (1998), Jon Kitna (2003), and Carson Palmer (2009).

"I don't think we've got many guys in this locker room that were part of those teams," Dalton said.

There are only nine left from the '09 loss, a strange 20-17 heartbreaker. Ask Whitworth. He can break it down for you.

"Four belly. We ran a belly play and the fullback fumbled," said Whitworth of Jeremi Johnson's fumble at the Raiders 15 with 11:31 left and the Bengals holding on to a 17-10 lead. "They got the ball, went down and scored. Then they kicked off. We fumbled the kickoff and they kicked the field goal to win."

Sebastian Janikowksi's field goal came with 15 seconds left and all that was left was long head shake back home.

"Twice in my career Bruce Gradkowski beat us on a last drive,' said Whitworth of the former backup Bengals quarterback who also beat his future team at the gun in Tampa in 2006.

"That one still stings.  That was a hard fought game we thought we had won and we gave it away."

It plays right into Lewis' hands.

"That's the single most important thing," Lewis said. "Our quarterback has done a good job of not turning the football over, and that's key. When we turn it over, we're going to have a hard time winning. For all 32 teams, it's hard to overcome."

At least that's cut and dried.

"The good thing is that the expectations for this team have changed, based on what we've accomplished. To make it to the playoffs four years in a row is not an easy thing to do," Dalton said. "But that's obviously the expectation of this city, and the expectation of this organization.

"You can see what I have done. But I'm not worried about all that stuff, because there's so many people that have supported me and have supported this team. That's what it's about."

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