The 36-game era of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton has been marked by an enormous amount of resilience. Last season's 7-1 crawl back from a 3-5 start. The perfect October in 2011 carved out of early disappointment. Last December's two-game road stand in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh after the numbing home loss to Dallas.
Here they are again. The Green-Dalton Bengals face one of their biggest rebound games Sunday when they try to avoid consecutive losses for the first time in nearly a year against undefeated New England (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
"Ever since I have been playing the game, when things haven't gone right, I feel like I've bounced back pretty quickly and done some really good things," Dalton said Wednesday. "I expect that going into this week."
Adding to the spice of a marquee national matchup against what left tackle Andrew Whitworth calls the "gold standard" of NFL teams is the sauce of the Bengals coping with themselves. The offense comes off its worst effort since Dalton's third NFL start and finds itself looking for an identity as coordinator Jay Gruden wonders about being a jack of all trades and master of none while New England head coach Bill Belichick marvels at how the Bengals are an explosive team that can score from anywhere.
And that just may be where the 2-2 Bengals are as they to figure out what to do with all this talent they have been stockpiling since 2010.
"Sometimes you get into the problem if you've got so many different people, that's where you have trouble with identity," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "You've got so many different people that you're trying to get the ball to and keep happy that sometimes you have to realize what we're going to do and be well at is more important than who all gets the ball. So it takes some of that, feeling it out and realizing, 'Hey, let's focus on getting an identity and focus on scoring points, then we start worrying about spreading the ball out and finding all the different things.' "
Frustration seeped out of the locker room on Sunday. On Wednesday it sounded like resolve.
Green, the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, was so frustrated at how frustrated he looked as he watched the tape of the Browns game that he has vowed to improve his body language. He even had an impromptu parking lot summit with Dalton on Tuesday and is looking to go short before he goes long again.
"Can't talk about it," Green said of the conversation.
Dalton, the third-year quarterback who won more games and passed for more touchdowns in his first two seasons than most anyone alive, admits he seems to play best when his back is against the wall.
Head coach Marvin Lewis, looking to steer his talented ship away from the same 2006-2007 rocks, remains calm.
"I think we're carving an identity," Lewis said. "Unless you're sitting here with perfection, you're not sitting here with a particular identity. We're taking strides towards an identity very quickly."
Run it? The Bengals pounded it 24 times in the second half against the Steelers to drain the clock and get their bearings in a 20-10 win after they threw it 23 times before the two-minute drill in the first half.
Pass it? Dalton engineered a second-half comeback against Green Bay hitting 13 of 16 passes on the way to a 34-30 victory.
Against Cleveland the Bengals handed it to their running backs four times in the second half and came up empty in a game they know they should have won against an opponent they know they should have beaten and that seems to have left a mark. And Whitworth, the de facto Bengals captain, is putting all 6-7, 330 pounds behind the idea of having an ID.
"I agree with that. And the key is that we're going to have to get stubborn and either stick with the run game or throw it more. We're going to have to develop an identity. And I don't really know of a successful offense that doesn't have one," Whitworth said.
The Bengals only have to look at the team they're playing. If Cincinnati is struggling trying to integrate two talented tight ends with a playmaking back and a big-play wide receiver, then the Pats are struggling with inexperience on offense. But New England is 4-0 living off play-action, their ID of this season as opposed to the no-huddle spread of the last few years. One of the Bengals defenders counted 32 play-action plays for New England against Atlanta last Sunday night, by far the heaviest play-action team the Bengals have faced this year.
If Gruden wants to run it, he'll have plenty of support.
"We want to run it a lot. We want to be able to run the football at people, and we have guys that honestly all come from backgrounds where that was what they do," Whitworth said, alluding to 2009. "From (center Kyle) Cook and myself - we swept the division running the football before. Andre Smith comes from a school and is the kind of style of player that likes to run the football. So I mean, we've got a group that wants to run it, our tight ends want to run it, everybody wants to run it.
"But what we really want to do is execute plays. So if we're throwing it, we want people to get open and we want to protect the quarterback. And if we're running it, we want to move people and run the ball effectively. But the key is to being balanced and not allow yourself to sway one way or the other too much and find out what you're doing well and keep doing it."
Which is where Green comes in. According to Pro Football Focus, he is the second-most targeted receiver in the league with 48 and 73rd when it comes to the percentage of catching them. Since he caught two balls longer than 40 yards in the opener, he's caught none longer than 20. His 20-yarder did go for a touchdown against Green Bay when he beat man coverage, which he isn't getting very often.
Green has an idea how to get the long ball going since corners like Cleveland's Joe Haden (and like New England's Aqib Talib figures to do) have taken away the sideline.
"Outside leverage, so they're really taking away the outside and I have to run a lot of slants and keep them honest," Green said. "I have to go inside a lot more, run more in and breaking routes to open the deep routes back up."
But everybody knows what Belichick has planned for Sunday.
"We're expecting for them to double A.J. and make other guys make plays. We will kind of go from there. The biggest thing is, we've got to be able to adjust on the sideline once we see what they are doing and go from there," Dalton said. "That's what teams are trying to take away. He's so good that when we have some of those deeper throws, deeper routes when the ball is in the air, teams are trying to take it away. We have to find ways when we do get our chances to hit them. That's the biggest thing, even with adjustments what teams are doing we still have to find ways to still take our shots with him."
Of course, one of the major things is that Dalton has to be more accurate on the deep stuff—1-for-5 on throws longer than 20 yards last week—and his rebound history.
After his worst passer rating ever, 40.8 against San Francisco in his third career start, Dalton had an even more miserable first half against Buffalo the next week before putting together an impeccable second half to pull off his first career fourth-quarter comeback over the undefeated Bills.
After his second worst passer rating ever, 56.4 in the first Pittsburgh game last season, Dalton threw for 299 yards with an 81.3 rating and had a shot to tie the Broncos on the last drive. After last season's Opening Night disaster in Baltimore he passed for three touchdowns against Cleveland the next week.
Now after his third worst rated game, 58.2, Dalton is getting heat reserved for winless journeymen.
"If you want to watch all the shows, watch everybody talking about games that have gone on, you can listen to it. But if you don't want to, don't watch the shows. Don't read the paper, don't read what's on the Internet. You can avoid as much as you want," Dalton said, "I don't read much, no. Good or bad."
That's the kind of resolve the Bengals are going to need Sunday. A day that Whitworth thinks is going to be an important one in the life of the Green-Dalton Bengals.
"Anytime you play a New England football team, if you're up and down about who you are and what your style is, you're going to get your tail whipped. So you've got to know what you're good at and you've got to go in and do it," he said. "That's the only way you beat New England. And that's the truth. If you're wishy-washy on what you want to do or what kind of team you want to be, you're in trouble. So this is a great week for us. Here we are, we're 2-2 and we get a chance to decide what kind of team we want to be. This week will tell us, the way we come out and play."