Dalton steers Bengals into playoff push

Andy Dalton

The theme of the week is the Carson Palmer reunion gig at Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday.

The Bengals aren't treating him like "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." But the story of the week is how Palmer's successor has steered the Bengals back into the wild card race the last two weeks with Andy Dalton engineering crisp wins over teams as diverse as the Super Bowl Giants and a Kansas City team ticketed for the No. 1 draft pick in a season starting to dwarf last year's rookie installment.

"Andy's play this year is way above where it was a year ago, and that's what you want from your players," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. "His efficiency with the football is way better … we're finishing drives in the red zone. Those are key."

In the three games since the bye week, Dalton has produced nine touchdowns in 12 red-zone drives, completed 64 percent of his passes, and thrown seven touchdowns compared to an interception that came nine quarters ago when a Bronco hit his arm as he threw.

He's racked up back-to-back 100-plus passer ratings to give him four for the season, which he had all last year. Dalton has matched his 20 touchdowns of that rookie season with six games left and he's way ahead of last year's passer rating (92-80.4), completion percentage (64 to 58), and is nearly a yard better per attempt at 7.4 to 6.6.

"I just think players around him are doing better," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "I think your quarterback has success and when he has failures I think a lot of people put too much on him. Whether it's positive or negative. I think guys around him are doing a much better job."

And if the 44th president is "No Drama Obama," then No. 14 is "Even-handed Andy." If Palmer couldn't cope with the daily Bengals soap opera of the previous decade and was one of the reasons he forced the October 2011 trade by sitting out, then Dalton hasn't had to put up with nary a karaoke number.

His locker room is so markedly different than the one where Palmer resided for eight seasons.

"The guys we have here, the guys we've brought in here are all team players," Dalton said. "Their big focus is they want to win. That's the reason there hasn't been much drama because we've got a great group of guys in this locker room. It's full of good people."

A week like this in the old days would have blown up the week in fragments of sound bites. Lewis set the tone in Monday's meeting and Dalton emerged executing it as perfectly as his play-action rollout for Sunday's one-yard touchdown in Kansas City.

"I think we'll be fine. Marvin just said (29) of our guys didn't play with Carson," Dalton said. "I don't know how it was when Carson was here. A lot of the guys on the team don't."

Dalton has never met Palmer. Never talked to him. He says he'll chat with him Sunday. With A.J. Green more interested in a new controller he got for his video game than a Palmer question ("Never met him," Green said), Dalton wondered aloud how many more Palmer questions were coming during the week.

He smiled and shook his head when a scribe told him, "About 93 and that's with no (media) access on Thanksgiving."

Dalton's relaxed, confident demeanor during a big buzz week reflects what is happening on the field for him.

"I feel like I've got a great understanding of this offense and what we're trying to do and how to go at defenses and things like that. I've just got to keep improving each week," Dalton said. "I think I'm really comfortable back there with everything we're doing, whether it is protections or route concepts or stuff like that. So the more I'm playing and the more experience I get, the more comfortable I feel."

Gruden has seen the same confidence.

"He's more confident. He's able to get us into good plays when the coverage dictates taking away a play that might be called and he's able to change it at the line and get us into a play that has a chance," Gruden said. "He's done a lot more this year than he had last year. We're giving him a lot more options at the line of scrimmage to make those changes and in the plays we don't change he's done a good job of executing and not forcing the ball into the coverage."

After throwing at least one interception in the first eight games of this season, Dalton has put together his first two clean games since the last two games of last year.

"The biggest thing that was bothering me this year was the turnovers. I've got 11 interceptions … that's not what you want," Dalton said. "So it's been an emphasis. I've tried to stress it before and for some reason there's been an interception in a game or something like that. I'm doing my best not to let the (defense) have any advantage. Usually if you win the turnover battle, you win the game."

Gruden still needs Dalton to improve his deep-ball accuracy, pointing out one overthrow and one out of bounds when Green had his defender beat, but he calls Dalton's 64.2 completion percentage "pretty good."

Indeed, he's 12th in the NFL, a spot behind Tom Brady and ahead of Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Jay Cutler and, yes, Palmer.

"We were 9-8 last year and we're 5-5 this year, so we're 14-13 with him as the starter," Gruden said of numbers that include playoffs. "That's not bad, but we have high expectations for him, as he does for himself. So we expect better."

The comparisons are going to be rampant this week. After 26 regular-season starts, Dalton's record is 14-12. Palmer logged in at 16-10. Palmer hit 550 of his 858 passes for 64.1 percent; Dalton got his 64.2 on 521 of 860. Palmer threw 45 TDs to 26 interceptions while Dalton is 40 to 24. Palmer averaged 7.2 yards per throw, Dalton 6.9.

Different systems. Different receivers. Different quarterbacks. Palmer is a slinging dropback connoisseur while Dalton is a touch, rhythm guy.

"If there was any animosity, it's gone now," said Kyle Cook, Palmer's last starting center in Cincinnati, of Palmer's desire to leave. "That's a long time ago. For me, Andy's my quarterback."

If the two-a game touchdown passes rate continues, Dalton is going to tie you-know-who's club single-season record with 32.

"It's great to show that they had the confidence in me to do something like that, because I guess at any time he could have walked in the door," Dalton said of the trade. "Or they could not have done the trade. I don't know. Everything's worked out. For me, it's perfect. I got to play all last year, got to start and didn't have to worry about any of that stuff."

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