Gut check

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      Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton stood tall against the elements Sunday.

TAMPA, Fla. - They gave him three large bags of I.V. fluids Sunday morning and by the time they got back to Cincinnati Sunday night the gag was maybe he would have thrown four interceptions if they had given him the fourth bag.

But the joke was on the rest of the AFC North, because if "Andy 2.0," showed up here Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, then Road Warrior Andy Dalton pushed him aside in the second half and put on one of the gutsiest displays in Bengals' history during the 14-13 victory over the Buccaneers.

Literally.

"He didn't say a word all morning,' said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "He was puking his guts out."

The 24-hour flu bug that suddenly invaded Dalton Saturday night kept him up virtually all night and took him out of the meetings and it had him feeling the worst he's ever felt on the field. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu estimated he saw him vomit 20 times Sunday morning. As they went out on the field for the game, Whitworth noticed Dalton in another conversation with a trash can.

"I didn't puke on the field. Coming in from warmups (and) right before we went out there for the game, I tried to get everything out as much as I could," Dalton said.

On a remarkable day the crazy-quilted AFC North regurgitated, Dalton re-grouped from three first-half interceptions long enough to jack his career road record to 18-12 and put them in striking distance of their second straight division title that would make him just the second man in NFL history to make the post season in the first four seasons of his career.

At 8-3-1 the Bengals still may not make the Wild Card round with 10 victories. But by the time the media informed them everybody else in the division had lost and were now 7-5 with four games left, the AFC North title looked very doable. If the Bengals split their four December games, the other teams are eliminated from title contention if they lose once.

But isn't this what Dalton does? Especially on the road? A wretched offensive performance. Curious clock management at the end of the first half. A mystifying failed on-sides kick in the third quarter. He finds a way.

At least three players missed practice time last week with illness, but Dalton was fine until the bug bit just before the Saturday night meetings.

"I told him after the game, 'Way to battle through, man,'" said safety George Iloka. "A lot of guys have the bug in here. I don't know what it is. Back up. Back up. He did a good job of sticking through it and putting us in position to win."

Dalton needed to throw four balls in the second half and he threw four strikes. The big one was a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Green turning into a muscle man in the slot when he went Hulk on cornerback Leonard Johnson and snatched the winning points with 2:04 left in the third quarter.

In that same drive Dalton converted two third-and-sixes, one on a crossing route to rookie wide receiver James Wright and another to the inexhaustibly clutch Sanu when he made a 15-yard catch in traffic over the middle at the Bucs 15.

(By the way, what more can Sanu do? He is now 5-for-5 in his career passing after he hit Green for an 11-yarder off a double pass and he took a direct snap for another first down on a 10-yard run.)

Then with 2:37 left in the game Dalton leaned back in the pocket and gunned a gorgeous 30-yard strike to Wright running down the right sideline past Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner on third-and-11 that bought them a precious 28 seconds off the clock.

"We felt as the game went on (if) we got that look, we were going to be able to get it to (Wright)," Dalton said. "He made a heck of a play at a big time and it was exactly what we needed to have happened to help us chew the clock. He made a big play at the right moment."

"Exact same route,' said Wright of Dalton's third interception in the last minute of the half that cost them a field goal. "He was squatting on the zone and I just ran around him and made a play…Perfect throw."

Wright made plenty of plays in what has become a terrific rookie year for the seventh-round pick. He now has huge third-down catches in the signature drives in the NFC South tie and wins against Carolina, New Orleans, and Tampa, and on Sunday he celebrated a career-high and team-best 59 yards on three catches.

"All of the moments are pretty big to me," Wright said. "Any time we win the game, they're all equally as big, but I enjoy the victory."  

It was another example of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson emptying his depth chart and playbook. He gave Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau plenty to think about this week with Sanu's double pass, his Wildcat formation, a reverse to Wright and a shovel pass to the tight end.

Dalton, feeling a bit better in the post-game, could care less about his 60.6 passer rating, the second lowest of his career in a win. It was better only than the 58.8 in Pittsburgh, another vintage Dalton-esque grind job on the road in a win that put the Bengals in the 2012 playoffs.

"Anytime you get a win, it's big. Obviously, you want to play better but a win's a win regardless of how you get it," Dalton said. "I've got to play better, especially early on in the game. I thought we did some really good things in the second half but still can play better. We still left a lot out there, and we'll watch the tape. We'll look at it but at the end of the day, I've got to play better….I'm feeling a little bit better but that's one of those things that would be a 24-hour thing and sweating helped."       

It certainly didn't help their sweating supporters as they wondered exactly what the heck was going on out there. But this year just might be different. Running back Jeremy Hill, Wright's LSU rookie bookend, ripped off a 12-yard run on the snap after Wright's 30-yard catch for his fourth straight fourth-quarter contribution in a victory.

 "(Dalton) is the leader of our team. No matter what he's going to have to go out there and play well," Hill said. "He didn't get the start he liked, but I think his second-half performance goes to show what type of quarterback he can be. He kept us in the game, he didn't turn it over and he finished the game strong."

One reason the Bengals offense struggled Sunday is they didn't put together a consistent running game. Hill worked the first two series, finished with just 40 yards on 13 carries, and didn't bust one until the end. Running back Giovani Bernard averaged 4.9 yards per attempt on 10 carries, but a tough Bucs defense anchored by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made it tough as the Bengals could never get into a rhythm against the Tampa Two zone that usually invites more consistent running.

"They game-planned it pretty well," Hill said. "They brought a safety down. Whenever we caught them in a two-(safety)-high, we ran the ball pretty well. When Andy made his checks, they kind of brought the safety down."

There were gut checks all over the place on offense. In the first game since right tackle Andre Smith went on injured reserve, Marshall Newhouse played the bulk of the game there. But left guard Clint Boling moved out there in the second quarter and with Mike Pollak going to left guard they were in on the first touchdown drive.

"Some guys are going to have to move around. We were getting ready for a worst-case scenario,' said Boling after his first extended work at tackle in four NFL seasons.  "We're trying to get some experience."

Dalton shook his head on the picks. One he threw in the end zone into double coverage. On the game's first snap, he threw high and behind Green and said the timing wasn't there. And he just didn't get the third one out of bounds against the blitz in the last minute of the first half. He tried to chuck it over Wright's head, but it only got as far as Verner.

"I was just trying to throw it away," Dalton said.  I've got to do whatever I can to get that ball out of bounds. I'll have to look at it but that was just a bad play. I was just trying to throw the ball away.

"I'm not going to make any excuses for the way things started out. It obviously isn't something you want to deal with, but I'm not saying that's the reason the way things came out the way they did."

Whitworth has seen plenty of games like this in his nine seasons where it just didn't go their way. But there was something different about Sunday.

  "Today for our quarterback to be as sick as he was, puking his guts all over the place and help get us a win, that's huge," Whitworth said. "Because what in the world are we here for?"

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