After watching his team head into the bye week scoring 31 points in less than 15 minutes after combining for 37 in the 128 minutes of the previous two games, head coach Marvin Lewis may not be too sure what he'll get from his Kings Island Bengals in this screeching season of a rollercoaster when he arrives back Monday.
Well, he does know one thing: he's not going to have to worry about his quarterback's confidence.
"That's the thing about Andy," Lewis said with an admiring shake of his head. "He's always the same. He never changes."
Dalton's numbers certainly have, thanks to the last three games, where he had a 66.7 passer rating, a 50-point dip from his torrid stretch in the previous four games. But Dalton headed off into the bye as usual, on a keel as even as an interstate.
"I'm as confident as ever; we're in a really good position right now," Dalton said Tuesday. "For us as a team we feel like we're in control of everything. And that's where we want to be at this point."
Say what they will about Dalton, and they will say, but he's been here three seasons and for the third straight one he has his team at the top of the stretch with a shot at the playoffs. And he's a magic number away from becoming just the fifth quarterback in history to reach the postseason in his first three seasons.
It's the second time Dalton has steered the Bengals into December with seven victories. The only Cincinnati quarterbacks that have done that since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 are Carson Palmer (2005-06, 2009) and Boomer Esiason (1986, 1988).
It's not a lock. The Bengals ended the '06 season with three straight losses to miss the playoffs and 20 years before that 10 wins weren't enough to get out of the AFC Central. But Dalton has the Bengals at 7-4 with career record of 6-3 in December.
"You want to be in a good position in December. It leads you into January. I've been fortunate enough to be able to do that the first three years I've been here," Dalton said. "I'm not playing the game for what everybody is writing."
It's a good thing because as every Cincinnati school kid knows, Dalton is getting skewered in some circles. But if you're looking for a combustible, red-hot 25-second NFL Network sound bite that drones on until the next explosion, you've got the wrong redhead.
"When you play the quarterback position, you're going to get praise for stuff you probably shouldn't get praise for and you're going to get criticized for something you probably shouldn't get criticized for," Dalton said. "It comes with playing the position."
The heat is on, especially after Sunday's 93-yard passing effort Sunday and his two interceptions that staked the Browns to a 13-0 lead. His next interception is going to tie last year's high of 16. But if Dalton's confidence isn't budging, then neither is that of Lewis and his leaders.
"He also brought you back in Buffalo and Detroit when they scored touchdowns at the end of the game and won the games," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "Sometimes we forget. We were put in situations where he had to win the game for us and he's done it. That's the main thing. We have to realize the ups and downs."
Sunday's two picks? Here seems to be the consensus inside:
Dalton never should have thrown the first one. Bad play from the outset. On the second one, wide receiver A.J. Green didn't respond in the route or to the ball.
Which is what seems to have spurred Lewis's comments from Monday when asked what he'd tell Dalton going into the bye.
"I tell Andy what I keep telling him all the time—you've got to get those guys to play to your standard. You've got to get them right, and it's up to you that if they're not right, you've got to make the corrections," Lewis said. "That's what his job is. As coaches we've got to make sure that he's not having the brunt on his shoulders all the time. We've got to get him protected; we can't get him jostled around and get beaten right away.
"We can't get beat in protection. We are good enough to not allow pressures, so he can stand there and do his job worry-free. It takes it all together to do it right. We take ourselves out of opportunity when we get flushed out of the pocket and we've got guys wide open."
Dalton's numbers have changed, but the projected ones wouldn't keep the Bengals out of the hunt. With 31 touchdown passes he'd become only the second Bengal to throw 30 in a season, joining Palmer in the '05 North title season. His 22 interceptions would be the most by one Bengal since Jon Kitna in 2001, but Esiason once led the Bengals into one postseason with 22 picks and the NFL's 25th-ranked defense.
Dalton's 4,269 passing yards project to a club record, but wouldn't mean much with a couple more three-interception games. And Dalton knows he's got to be consistent.
"We've done some good things and we've struggled in some areas," Dalton said. "The biggest thing is consistency. Finding ways to keep scoring points and giving ourselves a chance to win games."
Whitworth admits the lack of consistency is galling. But he also doesn't want his offense going into the bye week with its head between its legs. He remembers the Ravens losing four out of their last five last year before getting into the playoffs and winning it all.
"You have to be careful not to beat yourself down," Whitworth said. "If Baltimore had listened to everyone they wouldn't have won a Super Bowl. They played terrible for the last four or five games of the season and got hot at the right moment. You have to understand the things you're doing well."
What Dalton has done well is get his team to the stretch.
"That's all you can ask for," Whitworth said.
When the Bengals come back, they don't face a top 10 defense. The defenses they face are ranked 27, 22, 14, 30 and 13.
"I'm never worried about (No.) 14," Whitworth said. "I've always been a believer that you're the kind of guy that literally lives and breathes this stuff no matter what, you're going to have ups and downs but you're going to come out of it if you devote yourself to what you do. And he's continued to do that in the short amount of time he's been here. Even in the bad runs, he's come out of it and found a way to be successful and lead us. He'll do that."
"It comes with the position," he said.
Good Andy. Bad Andy. But he's Andy, and the Bengals don't mind taking him into another December.