The way their best defensive player sees it, the youthful Bengals are starting to get some tread on them and 2013 should be a vintage year.
"Next year I believe it's about time," defensive tackle Geno Atkins said Monday as he and his teammates packed away the team's second straight playoff berth.
Atkins sees his partner from the 2010 draft, left end Carlos Dunlap on defense, and the 2011 bookends A.J. Green and Andy Dalton on offense.
"It's going to be Carlos and I in our fourth year, Andy and A.J. are going to be in their third year. We're not young anymore and getting up there in age," Atkins said.
If the status-quo holds, Atkins's defense that finished sixth in the NFL and carved out Cincinnati's 7-1 finish to the regular season should be fine. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hasn't heard from any teams looking for head coaches and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in his Monday wrap that the club is looking to sign most of its free agents.
Right end Michael Johnson is believed to be heading the list while cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam Jones have received high grades from Zimmer and figure to be pursued by the club before free agency opens in early March.
But after a brutal final six games in which the offense scored seven TDs to the defense's four and didn't score any in Cincinnati's two elimination games against Pittsburgh and Houston, Dalton is answering questions despite leading the Bengals to the playoffs during his first two seasons in the league.
On Monday, Lewis assured the world he believes that Dalton is the guy to get Lewis's elusive first postseason win. And more. So did some of Dalton's mates on offense, such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.
"You've done a lot of good things," is what Lewis said he told Dalton on Monday. "You've just got to keep pressing forward. Keep putting your stamp on the football team. How important it is to you, you just keep impressing that upon them."
The numbers would also suggest Dalton is on a similar track headed to the Mount Rushmore of Bengals quarterbacks. Dalton has the most wins in his first two seasons (19-13), followed by Carson Palmer (17-12), Boomer Esiason (10-8) and Ken Anderson (7-10). Only Palmer had more TDs (50) with Dalton at 47, Esiason 30 and Anderson 12. Palmer (90.2) and Esiason (87.3) had the higher passer ratings with Dalton at 83.9 and Anderson at 73.6.
Whitworth, who finished his fourth season as the Bengals left tackle with his third playoff appearance, likes to note that Dalton is one of several offensive regulars that hasn't even played three seasons. He says it isn't enough time to find an identity for an offense that finished 22nd this season during a tumultuous year rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's broken foot cut short his bust-out season, rookie Marvin Jones became the fourth different starting wide receiver opposite Pro Bowler A.J. Green, and two first-year guards had to work with three different centers.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's status is in doubt with looming interviews for the head coaching jobs in Philadelphia and Arizona, but identity is still a concept that has to be grappled with in the huddle.
"It's a new group, it's a new offensive line, there are a lot of new things, the receiver group, losing a guy like Sanu. The offense was really rolling and playing well when he was in there," Whitworth said. "A couple of games he had for us, I think a lot of people saw a lot of promise in him. And you have a guy like Marvin Jones get in there. We're still talking about an extremely young offense.
"I don't think we necessarily should have an identity yet. We're still trying to figure out who in the world's on the roster. That's kind of how it's been. There are a lot of young players, and we're trying to figure out what they're good at. So we'll evaluate that, I'm sure. The coaches will tell us what our direction is and we'll get good at it."
Whitworth is looking at an offense that produced nine touchdown passes during a three-game winning streak in September in which Dalton averaged 297 yards passing. In the four-game winning streak bridging November and December the Bengals rushed for 154 yards per game. Whitworth thinks they've got to pick one and hang their hat on it.
"I think we played many different games this year. Some of the games we threw the ball a lot, had a lot of big plays, and some of the games we ran the ball well and didn't do as well in passing," Whitworth said. "So we've got to find what is our niche, what are we going to be known for, and what kind of wrinkles are we going to have off of that."
But no matter what the style is, the Bengals seem comfortable with Dalton. Hawkins can spit out Dalton's stats as if they're his own.
"Andy's an incredible quarterback, he is. To do the things he's done this early in his career. They can say is Dalton the guy? But ... I'd like to say," Hawkins said, "only Peyton Manning and Dan Marino have more (touchdown passes) than him in the first two seasons.
"And he's got 19 wins and taken the Bengals to back-to-back playoffs, for the first time in what, how many years? 30 years. He's only in his second year and he's doing an incredible job. Whenever you start playing, the standards get raised. Right now we're bums for losing in the first round, where before we were bums for not making it to the playoffs. That's how football works. We understand that. I think Andy's an incredible quarterback. He's going to continue to progress, continue to get better and he's going to bring the Bengals a lot of wins and playoff wins at that, for many years to come."
Whitworth recalled the bye week, when Lewis called out Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga on the leadership front, and he thought it was more about Lewis sending a message to everyone else.
"A lot of people took it as Marvin calling Andy and Rey out, but it wasn't. It was the fact that guys around them have to play really well for those guys to be successful," Whitworth said. "It doesn't matter where you are. Great quarterbacks are great because there are other great players on that team, too. It may not be (big) names, but they're great players. It's one of those things that everybody around him has got to play great too, and we've got to find an identity and a style and who we are and go with it."
Dalton's style is, of course, to burn a hole through the criticism with a checkdown stare and calmly move on. Asked about the "brutal" closing stretch, he said, "Brutal six-game stretch that we won most of those games. The offense could have played better but we did enough to win the game. Offseason is a time where you didn't do things as well as you wanted to and you try to fix them."
Dalton knows the position brings too much praise and too much blame.
"I'm not worried about that. Not that we're satisfied where we're at but we went to the playoffs in my first two years that I was here. I feel like that's something that hasn't happened in 30 years," Dalton said. "I feel blessed to be a part of it. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room and players that are good. I'm going to keep getting better. I'm just as disappointed as everyone else is. I didn't want to lose in the first round but that's part of it. All you can do is get better.
"To go from 4-12 before I got here to 9-7 and now 10-6. We're getting better and going to be better next year."
While Lewis puts the fall of the offense on the lack of third-down punch, Dalton believes the Bengals can improve by extending more plays once they break down. Both are probably dead on it. In the four games Sanu played a lot, the Bengals were 41.3 percent on third down. In the six games after he got hurt, they were 31.2 percent.
"Extending plays, I feel like I can get more completions in there," Dalton said. "A couple checkdowns and different things, moving around in the pocket. That's the next step in this offense when things break down, guys moving around and getting open and different things getting open we did it a couple times but we feel like there are plays out there to be made."
Dalton also knows his deep-ball accuracy has to improve. It just wasn't the last third-down pass where he overthrew wide receiver A.J. Green in the end zone with 2:51 left, but in the first half if he threw it longer and earlier he would have had Marvin Jones for a touchdown. Concerned about the safety coming over, Dalton hesitated just a tad too long.
"There are still plays I could have made; I still think I can improve on it," Dalton said. "If I hit on a couple of those longer throws in a game it changes things. I have to be better in that phase of the game."
He threw a great deep ball to Green for a huge 45-yard play in the third quarter, which shows it is consistency and not range.
"Make a play and put it in a spot where they can make one and do a better job of that," he said.
Consistency appears to be the early watchword for the 2013 offense.
"It's a fine line. It's just finding a way in those critical times to play that critical game great or make that critical play in a game. To be honest, it's not easy to put into words," Whitworth said. "It's a fine line of just having guys being able to be pushed enough and to step up to make the big plays at big times. The truth is, there's not many teams playing now. So whatever you're missing, there's a lot of teams missing more."