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Open highways on the road

Andy Dalton

Andy Dalton, the new era Bengals quarterback, finds himself right where he wants to be heading into the game that may define the first two seasons of the epoch he ushered in with A.J. Green last year.

"He's a guy that's very passionate. He has a lot of passion for the game, he has a lot of passion to do well," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who knows Dalton as well as anybody on this team. "He's one of those people that every second out of his day I would imagine he's thinking about what he can do better on this and that. That's kind of his attitude. And that kind of attitude is going to make him successful in this league. It means a lot to him, and that's what's important."

First of all, Dalton is on the road, where he's a cool, unruffled 10-5 lifetime. Plus, the last two road wins have been of the scuffling variety suited to his street-tough presence and it's shaping up to be another alley fight Sunday at Heinz Field (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), where Dalton and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are both teetering on the AFC North fiscal cliff.

Right where he wants to be.

"He's a guy that he goes on the road to win and I think he kind of likes that moment of everybody being against him and that kind of deal. I think he loves that environment," Whitworth says.

His friend has already had a remarkable first 30 NFL games.

In each of his first two seasons Dalton has steered the Bengals into the middle of a season-long playoff run. Only Dalton, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning have thrown for at least 20 touchdown passes in their first two seasons. Dalton has started a playoff game in his hometown, played the second half of a Pro Bowl, beat a Super Bowl MVP in Eli Manning, engineered five come-from-behind wins, two West Coast victories, and is four quarters from a second playoff berth at the tender age of 25 years, one month and 20 days.

But Dalton's 8-6 Bengals have yet to beat Roethlisberger's 7-7 Steelers or Joe Flacco's 9-5 Ravens. In Dalton's two seasons the Bengals are .500 against .500 teams and 3-6 against winning teams. This season they are 1-3 against top 15 defenses, and 1-3 against the AFC North in which Dalton has a solid 84.3 passer rating, but a glittering 91.5 against everyone else.

In other words, right where he wants to be.

"You can always list stats and all those things and for some reason, some guys don't get as much respect as others," Whitworth says. "I think he's one of those that it's always going to be if we lose a game, he doesn't have arm strength or he doesn't have this or that. And the truth is, he's a winner. As long as he keeps that attitude, he'll be successful."

Dalton knows everyone wants him to beat the Steelers. Big Ben. Heinz Field. He knows offensive coordinator Jay Gruden isn't happy with the way he played Thursday night in Philadelphia. After the Eagles got him for six sacks and two fumbles on a night Dalton completed less than 50 percent of his passes, Gruden felt Dalton took a step back and he's wondering where is that decisiveness and unblinking anticipation from that three-game run of last month of nine touchdown passes and no picks.

"I've just got to make more plays. I've had chances, and I haven't hit them," Dalton said Wednesday at his weekly news conference. "I expect to play better myself, and I'm going to play better. I don't think it's so much what everybody else is doing, but something that we can just be better as a whole. We know that, we've watched everything. Like I said, we're going to be better."

Center Kyle Cook blanches at the notion Dalton has struggled the past three games.

"I don't know about that. I think he's played well. We've won two out of three," says Cook, which is exactly how the locker room grades quarterbacks.

It could care less about the passer ratings and the QBRs and YPA and what-not. Cook has the same sense that Whitworth does about a guy that can be as fiery as his Bengals orange hair. The kid finds a way much of the time.

"I think he thrives off that. He's a winner. Look at what he did in college, his first year as a rookie," Cook says. "Not many that start and take you to the playoffs as a rookie."

Now Dalton is on the brink of doing it again as a sophomore, too, and no one has ever done that in NFL history with 46 touchdown passes and two postseason berths in his first two seasons. That's four fewer TDs than Carson Palmer in his first 30 games and six more than Boomer Esiason.

"Stats can pile up on you one way or another depending in any football game depending on what teams are good at. Some teams rack up certain stats, some teams rack up others," Whitworth said. "But the only one that actually matters at the end of the day and the only one people remember you for is Ws, so that's the one that we're going after and that's the one that's important to him."

A W on Sunday is the kind of W people are talking about and as Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said Wednesday, "He better let it rip because you know Big Ben is going to let it rip."

But here's a guy that won 42 games at Texas Christian, has won 17 games in the NFL and knows there's a fine line between winning a game and giving the other team points.

"You've got to know when you can take your chances and when not to," Dalton says. "And when you get your chances, you've got to hit them. And so it just comes with playing. I understand what I can do, I understand what our guys can do. We've just got to come out and play our best."

The offense doesn't go into this defining Sunday exactly purring. On Thursday night it committed four holds, a false start, and a delay of game. That came four days after the Bengals scored a touchdown on their opening possession against the Cowboys and got four field goals the rest of the way.

While the running game has been operating at a high level the last three weeks, the passing game has had to adapt to its fourth different starting wide receiver opposite A.J. Green with rookie Marvin Jones getting the call when rookie Mohamed Sanu went down with a broken foot after catching four touchdowns in his last three games.

In his three games as a starter, Jones has five catches and no touchdowns.

"It hasn't been a difficult thing. I feel like our guys do a good job trying to be in the right place," Dalton said. "Obviously we'd like to have consistent guys out there, but I think we've done a good job and our guys have done a good job of trying to do the right things. It's what we practice for, it's why we go out and work on timing and that kind of stuff. The more we play, the better it will be."

Still, there's a sense this offense is in a better place than it was after the 24-17 loss to the Steelers on Oct. 21. It will be recalled it was the next week that head coach Marvin Lewis called out Dalton to not only be a leader, but to play better, and he did.

"I wouldn't say I've gotten more confidence. I think the team has responded well to everything since then because we had to respond," Dalton said. "If we wanted to get to where we're at right now, we had to change some things. So we've played a lot better since then because we had to play a lot better. I think that's been the biggest thing."

Despite the recent three-game dip, the Bengals offense has put up enough yards to win, which it wasn't doing with the running game back in October.

"I think that's one of those things where you look at stats. I think we've moved the football up and down the field on people," Whitworth says. "We just haven't converted and gotten the points we need to get. That comes down one play. Somebody makes a catch and gets into the end zone or don't fumble in a critical situation or making a catch on third down in the red zone so we don't have to kick a field goal. All of those things change everything and that changes the whole landscape. I think if we continue to run the football the way we have and be efficient in the pass game and don't turn it over we're going to be very good and continue to be. We're moving the football. We just have to finish the play."

But even Whitworth says the stats don't lie on this one. A defining game is a defining game.

"It's a young football team that's going to get more confidence every experience it's put in and this is going to be a great one," Whitworth says. "There's a lot riding on it going into Pittsburgh; to go in and play well would be a great opportunity for these guys to really take a step forward in all of their careers for all of us. It's a great opportunity for our team and guys have to see it as that."

Andy The Red knows it has never been more black and white.

"We've got everything in front of us. We've put ourselves in a good position to control everything," Dalton said. "So these last two games are two big games for us. We've got to come out and show what kind of team we are, and there aren't better opponents to do it against than the Steelers and the Ravens."

Green, the other bookend of the era, agrees that there is something missing on the shelf.

"The wins, man. Putting together a great season," Green says. "Trying to win these last two games."

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