Some of the leading storylines as the Bengals come out of the bye week in an attempt to jump-start a playoff run in November in three Paul Brown Stadium games against quarterbacks with a combined 15 Pro Bowl selections:
DALTON VS. THE IRON
November is going to be an intriguing and decisive month as Cincinnati's Andy Dalton immerses himself in a trio of quarterback duels on his home turf.
He won't be able to escape the comparisons when Denver's Peyton Manning (Nov. 4, 1 p.m.), the New York Giants' Eli Manning (Nov. 11, 1 p.m.) and Oakland's Carson Palmer (1 p.m., Nov. 25) come to town. The Mannings because they're the quintessential franchise quarterbacks who have won a combined three Super Bowls and Palmer because he is Dalton's predecessor who never realized his promise in Cincinnati after two Pro Bowls and a division title in his first three seasons.
When stacking Dalton's first 23 NFL games against the November Trio, his numbers show he belongs, starting with the most important stat: Wins and losses. His 12-11 record is the same as Eli Manning's, better than Peyton's 10-13 and a game behind Palmer's 13-10.
Dalton's passer rating of 82.7 in that stretch is better than the Mannings' (Peyton's 77.2 and Eli's 69.7) and below Palmer's 89.6 while throwing fewer picks than all three in the first 23 games with 23. Peyton threw 36 interceptions, Eli 25, and Palmer 24. Peyton set the pace with 40 TDs, followed by Palmer at 38, Dalton at 33, and Eli at 28.
The November Trio had no such things as a sophomore jinx. In his second season Peyton's Colts won their first seven while he threw 14 TDs and eight interceptions and shot to a 128 passer rating. Eli went his brother even better with 13 TDs, five picks and a 138. 3 rating as the Giants started 5-2 in 2005, the same year Palmer led the Bengals to 5-2 with 13 TDs, four interceptions and a 103 rating.
It's the interceptions that have prevented Dalton from joining that group in his sophomore season. In 2012 he's thrown 13 TDs and his yards per attempt (7.5) is below Peyton (8.2) in the first seven games of '99, but between Eli (6.9) and Palmer (7.9) in their first seven games of '05. And Dalton's completion percentage of 64.2 is better than Peyton (59.6) and Eli (51.1) and below Palmer's 69.4.
(It probably should also be noted that heading into last week's game against Pittsburgh, Dalton's completion percentage was at 66 while averaging eight yards per throw.)
So it's the picks. And Dalton will tell you that. Heading into Sunday's games he's tied with Browns rookie Brandon Weeden for an NFL-leading 10 interceptions. He's thrown at least one pick in every game and said last week it is "unacceptable."
In this upcoming QB homestand, it's going to be all about the numbers and the points on the scoreboard figure to mirror the decimals and percentage points of the QBs.
It is now time to treat each catch by Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green with some grand gesture. Maybe something like the regal bow that used to greet Lee Smith out of the Fenway Park and Wrigley Field bullpens back in the day.
Here's a guy that had one catch for eight yards last week and his 636 yards are still third in the NFL behind Wes Welker's 688 and Reggie Wayne's 666, and are on pace to set the Bengals club record with 1,454 yards, 14 more than Chad Johnson in 2007. And his TD catches in six straight games are two shy of T.J. Houshmandzadeh's single-season record of eight.
Plus, Green is on pace for 101 catches, second only to Houshmandzadeh's club record 112 in 2007.
(And if that's not a lesson for the running game … . Those two receiving records in '07 came in a year the Bengals went 7-9.)
So how about throwing Green the ball some more?
That's what offensive coordinator Jay Gruden went into the bye week grumbling to himself after the Bengals took just six shots at Green on Sunday night against Pittsburgh and only once down the field. Green should be getting at least six throws a half and one deep ball per quarter and it sounds like Gruden is going to make sure it's going to happen.
Of course, it's not like the Bengals have ignored him, According to ProFootballFocus.com, Green's 70 targets are more than Larry Fitzgerald (67) and Calvin Johnson (66) and are good for fifth most in the NFL.
So maybe it's not quantity, its quality. Green's percentage of catches on balls thrown to him is just 62.9, according to PFF, 14th in a league where people named Donald Jones, Andre Roberts and Eric Decker have a higher number. Still, Fitzgerald is 16th and Calvin Johnson is 18th behind Green in conversions of targets.
But it sure sounds like Gruden is going to get Green more than six throws next Sunday.
TEZ'S BID FOR 121
When it comes to tackles, press-box stats are different than the stats taken off the coaches' film study, but either way it looks like WILL backer Vontaze Burfict is going to run to a rookie record.
The coaches have him for a total of 62 tackles after four straight double-digit games that included 16 against the Steelers last Sunday night.
In his five starts, the press box has Burfict for 43 tackles in his five starts. That projects to 120 for the season, shattering the 106 rookie outside linebacker Reggie Williams had in 1976. It would be only the third time in the 2000s the press box had a Bengal with at least 120. Outside linebacker Takeo Spikes had 128 in 2000 and 10 years later Dhani Jones had 125 in the middle.
THE RUNNING MATE SEARCH
The Bengals went into the bye searching for a more consistent threat opposite Green. It looks like they've got two keepers in the slot in Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu, and they're hoping the answer on the outside is rookie Marvin Jones.
But Jones is iffy with what is believed to be a knee sprain and the Bengals must be wondering if they expected too much from Armon Binns and Brandon Tate. They've both had good game moments and are tremendous workers in practice and after practice, but they've been inconsistent getting open against one-on-one looks.
Since Binns caught a 48-yard touchdown pass against the Redskins on Sept. 23, the two of them have had a combined 20 balls thrown to them for eight catches and 67 yards.
Should they Bengals have gone after a veteran No. 2 receiver in the offseason? When they went out and got Laveranues Coles, Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens in the recent past, they weren't long-term or even immediate solutions. You wonder how far Jerome Simpson would have come if he got Coles's snaps in '09 or T.O's in '10.
Take Jacoby Jones. He was shopped around the league during this spring and ended up in Baltimore, but what would it have meant? Jones has 13 catches and a TD with a 15.5-yard average while Binns has 18 catches and a TD with an 11.7 average. So the Jones that looks to be the answer is Marvin, but the Bengals are also hoping that Binns and Tate find more production with the more reps they get. It's Binns's rookie year and Tate's first with Dalton.
THE SPEED FACTOR
The Bengals signed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to beef them up on short yardage, goal line and the red zone, and for the most part he's delivered. On 14 runs when it is third or fourth and two yards or less, he's converted 11 times in getting the tough yards, and against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he's got 25 yards on six carries and a touchdown.
But Green-Ellis ended up playing with his complement for all of five quarters when Bernard Scott tore his ACL late in the first quarter against the Dolphins. The running game is clearly in trouble without that speed element, but that's not BJGE's fault. Except for the fumble on the goal line in Jacksonville, he's doing what the Bengals got him to do.
How the Bengals make up for Scott's speed is going to be a big factor down the stretch. More snaps for Cedric Peerman? More screens and reverses for Andrew Hawkins? More Wildcat looks from Mohamed Sanu? It doesn't look like a trade is brewing because the Bengals probably would have pulled the trigger in time to get the guy in here before now.
Here's a leading storyline for the draft. Which speed back to do the Bengals take in the second round next April?
THE CONSISTENCY GOAL
Two guys the Bengals really need to take the next step so they can take the next step are third-year tight end Jermaine Gresham and fourth-year middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. They've been brilliant at times and not so brilliant at others and the Bengals really need more brilliant in the next nine games.
According to PFF.com, Gresham has had the eighth-most balls thrown to him with 42 passes among tight ends, but his five drops are tied for the fourth most and he's the 35th tight end when it comes to converting targets to catches. Take away the drops, and his conversion rate is 11th in the league, ahead of Heath Miller, Aaron Hernandez and Vernon Davis.
If he can cut down the drops, the Bengals are very close to having that major weapon for Green. And he could use more targets. He had just five last Sunday night.
Maualuga was a big factor in the Bengals stacking up in three straight games top backs in Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, Miami's Reggie Bush and Cleveland's Trent Richardson. Then all of a sudden last Sunday night someone named Jonathan Dwyer scorched them for 122 yards in his first NFL start on seven yards a shot. Even before he ripped off that 32-yarder at the end he was averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
PFF.com has rated Maualuga poorly when it comes to covering the pass, but all of the Bengals haven't been good covering the middle of the field and he needs some help there. If Maualuga can get the run defense back to where it was earlier this month, it's going to open up the pass rush.
Head coach Marvin Lewis certainly endorsed Maualuga earlier in the bye week when he said he's not looking to move him out of the middle. There are those that think the Bengals future alignment could feature Maualuga at SAM backer and Burfict in the middle. Lewis indicated he's keeping things the same, but it's a spot to watch as the season unfolds.