DENVER — It wasn't supposed to be like this.
It was supposed to be a ferocious running game and a band of stout-hearted run-stoppers that were supposed to guide Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton through the early stages of his development.
Instead, there was Dalton stalking what only John Elway before him had accomplished and doing it on Elway's sacred turf in his finest hour of the fourth quarter in a 19-point second half he rung up 280 yards before it fell short by a yard in the Broncos 24-22 victory.
Yes Virginia, the Bengals have their quarterback of the future.
"Andy, you all saw it. He is primed to be great," said rookie wide receiver A.J. Green. "His composure, his confidence, and the way he can throw the ball to everybody."
After his first monster day in the NFL of 10 catches for 124 yards, Green called it this New Era offense's coming-out party. Dalton, just off the best day ever by a Bengals rookie quarterback with 332 yards and a 107 passer rating, shrugged.
"Write whatever you want," Dalton said in his postgame interview session, and he began the whole thing by saying, "It doesn't matter what I did. We lost."
But what people are writing is the Bengals have found their duo for the future, in particular at quarterback with the 23-year-old Richie Cunningham look-alike showing his Fonzie cool in bringing the Bengals back from 14 points down early in the third quarter to 24-22 with 11:17 left when he jammed a five-yard touchdown pass to Green tightroping in the end zone.
It took Carson Palmer 12 games to surpass a 107 rating on the road and Boomer Esiason three games into his sophomore year to get a 300-yard game. Dalton has yet to throw an interception in his first 56 throws after completing 27 of 41 passes and two touchdowns. That 105 passer rating has a solid 66 completion percentage and 7.4 yards per throw.
And he came within about three feet of matching Elway, the only rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger to win his team's first two games on the road to start the season in the first two weeks.
"We knew it all along; we were just waiting for them to show you," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who noted the Dalton demeanor in the wild fourth. "Pretty amazing. I've been impressed with the kid ever since he got here and I'm impressed more each day. He's a ballplayer. We have to play better around him."
Both lines failed Dalton. The Bengals whiffed on three third-and-1s and the fourth-and-1 with three minutes left that was their last, best hope, and they didn't convert a third down until their 10th try during the last desperate drive from their own 5 with no timeouts and 2:25 left. Naturally, it was Dalton to Green.
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson also had a career day, the 136 yards eclipsing the 124 Palmer threw to him against San Diego late last year in his last Paul Brown Stadium appearance. It was overshadowed by Simpson's third-down drop at the Denver 20 with 6:49 left that would have set up the winning field goal, but that took a little bit of everybody. Dalton backed away from pressure as he threw and it was slightly behind Simpson, but catchable.
"He's magnificent. He executed; he didn't play like a rookie," Simpson said of Dalton. "He played with poise and kept us in this game."
After Dalton got sacked on second-and-10 from the Denver 48 on a corner blitz with 33 seconds left he called himself out.
"I can't take a sack on a blitz in the two-minute drill," Dalton said.
Yet Whitworth was upset the offense bailed on Dalton when it botched nine straight third downs, especially the short ones, and the defense didn't hold up its end when it let Denver convert five of 12 third downs and score on two touchdown passes of at least 25 yards to someone named Eric Decker who came into the game with 12 NFL catches and one touchdown. The proud front seven let the Broncos pound them 36 times at 3.6 yards per pop.
"We didn't play good run defense or pass defense and that's disappointing," said cornerback Leon Hall. "The offense did well. When we gave up something, they came back."
Dalton wasn't pleased but he can look into the future, too. He sees the building blocks.
"For sure," he said. "There's a lot of things we can learn from the film. We were put in a lot of situations and I think it's going to help us the rest of the season. I knew we had the ability to do it, we just had to go out and do it.
He'll watch on tape how defensive end Robert Ayers shot in from the left side on fourth-and-one from the Denver 36 with three minutes left with no one on him as Dalton executed a play-action run fake and rolled out by himself with the plan to hit Green over the middle. But Ayers guessed right and just as Dalton turned his head he had to unload an incompletion.
"He got me," Dalton said.
He needed a little more help. It wasn't the plan, but the Bengals seem to have gotten a quarterback out of it.