Deep breath at the top of the stretch

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Andy Dalton's performance and passion in crunch time make him an MVP.

The Bengals, the first 8-0 team in division history, huddle atop the AFC North this Sunday taking one final breather before the stretch run.

Trying to secure a play-off bye, the best record in franchise history, and even their third AFC North title in six seasons won't be easy. But then, the first eight games didn't look all that inviting, either, when the schedule came out in April.

Three of their last eight games are in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones. They've got road games against teams that would be in the playoffs in Arizona and Denver when the Week Nine games began.

They've got two Paul Brown Stadium games against defenses that have their teams on the cusp of the playoffs, the Steelers and Rams.

They've got back-to-back games out of the time zone in San Francisco and Denver in late December. And isn't interesting the last time the Bengals won in Denver was 40 years ago in 1975 when the Bengals set their record for winning percentage at 11-3? It's been even a year longer (1974) since they won in Frisco.

All that said, this may be the most equipped Bengals team in history to confront such challenges. Certainly the numbers say it, the fourth-quarter comebacks in Baltimore and Pittsburgh verify it, and the vibe perpetuates it.

While we take a breather, let's hand out the Bengals.com mid-season awards. In deference to head coach Marvin Lewis's call to "stay true to who we are," after Thursday night's 31-10 victory over Cleveland. So this is no banquet. This is a lunch-time break on the shift.

MVP: QB Andy Dalton.

Can we give it to Hue Jack Dalton? Or Andy Jackson? They certainly have been on the money like the seventh president on the $20 bill.  

Dalton has responded ever since offensive coordinator Hue Jackson challenged him in the offseason and the two have been hand-in-glove ever since with Dalton the point guard executing Jackson's schemes. Even when they break down, Dalton's impeccable command of Jackson's offense at the line of scrimmage and his improvisation beyond has saved many days.

Cincinnati Bengals host Cleveland Browns in week 9 of the regular season.

A tip of the hat, too, to quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who has melded his mechanics with the coaches of the Tom House quarterback camp.

Dalton deserves all the praise he can get, as much as he didn't deserve all the brickbats. He went to Los Angeles for three weeks to work with House and took his receivers for the last week. He took Jackson's advice and became more of a factor with his teammates in the huddle and off the field. He cut down on the turnovers and with just four interceptions he's been in a year-long battle for the NFL passing title with future Hall-of-Famers Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

He's on pace to break the Bengals' single-season records for TDs (36), yards (4,452), and passer rating (111), but forget all that. His NFL-leading numbers in the fourth quarter that produced comebacks over Baltimore, Seattle, and Pittsburgh reflect the maturation of a quarterback in his fifth season.

And the Bengals are on pace to score their most points of all-time with 458, ten more than the 1988 team.

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OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: TE Tyler Eifert.

The man leads the NFL with nine touchdowns and, along with wide receiver Marvin Jones, has made the Bengals offense complete. He runs routes like a wide receiver and burns cornerbacks as much as linebackers while also offering a big target worthy of a 6-6 tight end. He and Jones are the reasons Dalton can take what they give him.

You can look at the box scores and get a general sense how teams have played them. Defenses mix up coverages throughout a game, but when wide receiver A.J. Green went for 227 yards against a blitzing Ravens defense, Baltimore pretty much left him one-on-one.

Jones led everyone with 95 yards in Buffalo when the Bills tilted coverage to Green. Green went for 118 more in Pittsburgh when the Steelers kept him in front of them until the final 2:57, and Eifert's three TDs made mincemeat of Cleveland's emphasis on taking out Green with cloud coverage in the absence of cornerback Joe Haden.

 Eifert's next TD catch gives him the Bengals record for tight ends in a season. They call him Dalton's safety blanket, but in reality he is very much a part of the fabric that completes this offense.

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DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:  DT Geno Atkins, LE Carlos Dunlap, and CB Adam Jones.

How do you leave one of them off? With 8.5 sacks, Dunlap is on pace to set the club record and profootballfocus.com has him second in the league with quarterback hits. With six sacks, Atkins leads all NFL defensive tackles and is threating his club record of 12.5 sacks for tackles. With 479 snaps, according to PFF, cornerback Adam Jones has played the fourth most snaps at cornerback without giving up a touchdown behind only William Gay (550), Nolan Carroll (525), and Richard Sherman (507).

It certainly validates Atkins' role as the straw that stirs the drink. It all begins inside and at the risk of ticking off head coach Marvin Lewis, the sack stat proves it all. Last year, with Atkins coming off his torn ACL, the Bengals had just 20 sacks and Atkins had three of them. Now with a healthy Atkins, everything is doubled since the Bengals have 23 sacks at the break.

But he's had Dunlap and Jones as finishers.

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SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB Cedric Peerman.

The specialists have had their moments. Kicker Mike Nugent has been immense the last month with his two gun-beating field goals against Seattle and a huge field goal late in Pittsburgh. Punter Kevin Huber had been among the league-leaders until he had his first blocked punt in five years on Thursday night.

But Peerman has been a beast all year covering kicks. Teamrankings.com has him tied for the league lead with eight solo tackles on special teams and he's been particularly dangerous on kickoffs, where he forced Justin Gilbert's fumble Thursday night on the Browns 8 and almost got it back.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: WLB Vontaze Burfict.

He's only been back for the last two games and he's played 65 percent of the 117 plays, but is there any coincidence the defense has played their two best games of the year since he's been back? Absolutely none and it makes you wonder how good he'll be and they'll be once he gets his legs under him.

Atkins could have received this award and so could have Eifert or Marvin Jones. But when it was revealed back in January that Burfict had undergone micro fracture knee surgery, a chill went through Bengaldom and everyone suddenly had a medical degree. Would he ever play in 2015? Would he ever play again? He heard it all but, to his credit, he and Bengals rehab chief Nick Cosgray put their heads down and he got back for the first game he was eligible.

And teammates and coaches will tell you what he pulled off that day in Pittsburgh, 36 snaps with one practice in a year, was truly rare. It was quite an effort by everyone that day with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (calf) going out on the first drive and the Bengals holding Pittsburgh's explosive offense at home to three points in the final 52 minutes.

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COACH OF THE YEAR: HC Marvin Lewis

Usually we reserve this one for an assistant, but there are a lot of reasons we're going for the head man. And we'll take the lead of Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther when he gave Lewis the game ball after Thursday's victory. No AFC North team had ever started 8-0.

That's a good place to start.

But you can also start here with Lewis going out of the box right away after that play-off loss to the Colts back in January when he revamped the practice schedule.  He researched it with other teams that had done it and he worked in concert with his head strength coach Chip Morton and assistant Jeff Friday to pull it off. He went against his 12 previous seasons of philosophy and transformed the Friday practice into a walk-through and the Saturday walk-though into a brief, up-tempo practice while reserving Wednesday and Thursday for the hardest workouts of the week.

Has it worked? So far, so good. Starters have lost just three games to injuries and they look as fast and loose on the road as they do at home, as spry after a four-day break as they did a bye.  

Lewis threw his support behind Dalton and Jackson from day one of the offseason. And don't think he didn't have a hand in Burfict's rehab from the standpoint of counseling.

Plus, his game coaching has been superb, going back to the last quarter of the San Diego game when they beat down the Chargers with field position and the clock. And he played the clock perfectly to tie Seattle at the gun and nobody panicked in the AFC North dens of inequity in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

That comes from the top.

And against Cleveland he set the tone for the second half when he challenged the spot on the Browns' first third-down attempt. It overturned a first down, forced a punt, and Cleveland didn't convert on third down until three minutes left in the game. Throw in his two fourth-down gambles that sparked each of the first two TD drives against Cleveland, and it was a nice night under the lights.

It's also time to tip your hat to his longevity. He's on the doorstep of winning his fourth division title with a roster that has no one from the first crown in 2005. His 108 victories are 35th on the all-time list and he's six away from passing Dennis Green with the most victories by an African-American head coach with the same team.

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PLAY OF THE YEAR: S Shawn Williams' interception in Pittsburgh.

With 6:27 left and trailing 10-6, it looked as if the Bengals were headed to their first loss. Dalton had just thrown his second interception of the game, albeit a smart one because he heaved it from his own goal line and a penalty helped put it at the Steelers 24.

But all quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to do was drain the clock, or drive for a field goal or . . .

It didn't happen. Nose tackle Domata Peko stopped running back DeAngelo Williams for a four-yard gain and on second down Roethlisberger rolled away from tackle Pat Sims and had 10 seconds to throw. But he didn't see Williams lurking on the sidelines for the check-down pass.

But the Bengals sideline did and it made for the best moment of the first half of the season. With the white jerseys jumping in unison and pointing the other way, they saw Williams extended full out parallel to the ground and make a diving catch the instant before he slid out of bounds.

Suddenly with 5:34 left the Bengals had the ball at the Steelers 45 and less than three minutes later the Bengals had the lead for good.

Williams, a third-year backup, was on the field with two other safeties because Pittsburgh was in a run look, but that didn't stop him from coming up with his first NFL pick. He's a perfect example of one of these back-of-the line players who is not back of the line and one of these guys every team needs to win. Expect to see him on the field more as the Bengals continue to tinker with him as a nickel backer.

  
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