Updated: 6:40 p.m.
The two quarterbacks who helped usher in the era of instant quarterbacking and put the Bengals and Colts immediately into the playoff mix by taking the first snap of their careers and have yet to look back are on display Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
With a win, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton guarantees a winning season in all three of his years, takes another step closer to his first AFC North title, and jacks his career winning percentage to .614.
With a win, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck wins his first AFC South title with his 20th win in his 29th game.
Five years ago it was unthinkable. The NFL was still in the hold-clipboard-and-watch phase for young quarterbacks, but guys like Dalton and Luck have helped obliterate that template forever.
"Teams have started to figure out a guy develops a little more rapidly by playing. Taking some shots on the chin. Live bullets," says Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "Learning from the mistakes they make and gaining more confidence with each success they have."
As head coach Marvin Lewis says, the offenses and defenses in college more and more are merging into the NFL, making the transition markedly easier.
"I think colleges are a lot further along now. Like Andy at TCU, a lot of the schemes they run are similar (to the NFL). The protection schemes are similar," Gruden says. "They're further along than back in the old days and (teams) are also doing a better job of catering to the quarterback they have instead of shoving a system down a quarterback's throat."
Two reasons Gruden was attracted to Dalton during the 2011 draft and was the guy he wanted in the second round: Dalton's makeup and the similarity of TCU's system to what Gruden was implementing in Cincinnati. Colin Kaepernick, who was the better athlete but seen by the Bengals as more of a project, went the next pick to San Francisco after Dalton went 35th to Cincinnati. Ryan Mallett, who went in the third round to New England, maybe had a bigger pocket presence.
"We thought he was the most mentally ready to play," Gruden says. "Not the most physically-gifted. Colin was gifted. Ryan Mallett maybe had a stronger arm. But Andy won a ton of games at TCU. Started as a freshman. I don't think we could have gone wrong with any of those guys."
All Dalton is lacking on his rèsumè is a playoff win. As Gruden says, "In three years he's accomplished so much." If Dalton was Player of the Month in October and then suddenly the scourge of Twitter in November, Gruden looks at the occasional lapses of the best. Drew Brees. Tom Brady. Peyton Manning. And says it's unfair to compare a third-year QB to the best.
Dalton and Luck win. Head coach Marvin Lewis appreciates that. That's why he did it the complete opposite way in 2003 when the Bengals took Carson Palmer No. 1 overall. Lewis installed respected veteran Jon Kitna as the starter and Palmer watched Kitna win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award in directing the biggest turnaround in the league before taking the reins of a settled 8-8 team in 2004 instead of a retooling 2-14 team in 2003.
Lewis says teams can still go either way: sit or start.
"Whatever you think is best for your team. I don't think a lot depends on the player. It depends on what you need as a team," Lewis says. "You've got to adjust. You get the player ready to go whenever he's ready to go. ... We were trying to get the (2003) team to believe. Not to have excuses."
UP IN ARMS: Gruden doesn't buy that Dalton doesn't have an arm strong enough to cut through the AFC North elements. Sunday should be a good test but, then again, the running game figures to be front and center and if Dalton is doing his job he won't risk putting his defense and special teams in bad situations with passes all over a wintry lot.
"His arm is strong enough; he throws a good ball for the wind," Gruden says. "He spins it pretty good. He's got a great torso (spin). He throws a hard ball that knifes through the wind."
NO ID CRISIS: For the first time all season, the Bengals seem comfortable in their own skin after the 17-10 beat-the-clock job last Sunday on The Coast. They're at their best when they mash the clock in a running game that also gives Dalton space while they let their relentless defense and special teams rest. And you get the sense with bad weather descending on a stadium where the Bengals are 5-0 this season, they can't wait to play because everything points to their strengths.
"They understand as a football team that winning is what we're here for. You keep looking at the time graph as you get closer to your ultimate goals," Lewis says. "They understand their identity and that's not going to vary very much whether we have to run it, or throw it; we're prepared to do it. We know we have to play good defense and special teams and if we run it 40 times or pass it 40 times I'm not going to have the other guy sitting in my office sucking his thumb or upset about something. We're not going to have a reaction."
KUBIAK GONE: How about Lewis's reaction to this? The man that knocked his Bengals out of the playoffs the past two seasons, Texans coach Gary Kubiak, got fired on Friday. But Lewis didn't follow a playoff run with a club that is looking at picking first in May. Instead, he's now on the verge of a franchise-first three straight playoff berths.
"The amazing thing is I thought they had built a good program there," Lewis said after Friday's practice. "Very similar in what they had in Indianapolis. Very quickly it goes away. It's not necessarily one person's fault. Now ownership gets an opportunity to do what it has to do."
BOLING RESOLVED: Left guard Clint Boling, leaning on crutches Friday, is still making plans on where to have his ACL reconstructed. He says it will be a Christmas-time surgery and, "I think my goal starting out has to be back by the start of training camp."
He says the injury that occurred on the fifth play in San Diego last Sunday was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a running play, he planted normally, got hit, and the knee twisted, tearing the ACL.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» As sleet pelted downtown Cincinnati on Friday morning the Bengals retreated indoors for the first time this season and held their last full-scale workout before Sunday under the University of Cincinnati bubble.
With right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot) working again after being limited Thursday, the roster looked to be intact for the 10-minute ride up the hill to Clifton.
But since Zeitler went limited again and was listed as questionable, that would indicate the offensive line is going to start Sunday like it ended in San Diego last week with Andrew Whitworth at left guard and Mike Pollak at right guard.
Everyone else on the active roster was probable. Whitworth (calf) and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (hamstring) went full Friday for the first time this week. The only player who didn't work Friday was long snapper Clark Harris with an illness.
» Sunday's conditions won't be as pristine. The National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio is calling for pretty much the same weather system that unloaded on Cincinnati on Friday. Expect freezing rain and snow all game in temperatures hovering near 32 degrees with a north wind of about eight miles per hour.
The forecast should favor the Bengals with the Colts an indoor team, but that's not always the case. Dalton has played only two more games than Luck in 35-degree temperatures or colder. Dalton is 2-1. Luck won his only encounter in freezing temperatures last year in a 20-13 win at Kansas City on Dec. 22 in which he had a passer rating of 76.5 with one touchdown and no interceptions.
» The Marvin Lewis Community Fund strikes again. This time at Dick's Sporting Goods in Sycamore Plaza on Monday.
Carlos Dunlap, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham plan to assist approximately 35 children, selected by the MLCF as they shop for winter essentials and Christmas gifts. The children are from the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, Cincinnati Public Schools, Covington Independent Public Schools, and North College Hill Schools.