The Bengals try to make it 8-0 at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium this season and 4-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks when they play the most recent one Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in a game pitting two of the quickest winners at the position in the history of the NFL.
Last week Cincinnati's Andy Dalton joined Baltimore's Joe Flacco as one of four quarterbacks who led their teams to the playoffs in their first three seasons as pros and Cincinnati running backs coach Hue Jackson says Dalton and Flacco have more than remarkably similar statistics in common. Jackson, who was Flacco's quarterbacks coach during his first two seasons he won three playoff games, says he and Dalton have the demeanor of winners. Jackson has seen Dalton from both sides of the ball with the Bengals after serving last season as the assistant secondary coach.
"They both are pretty even-keeled guys, based on what I've seen from Andy since I've been around him. Joe's always been that way, ever since I met him," Jackson said after Thursday's practice. "Joe never gets too high, never gets too low. He's not a rah-rah guy. I don't think Andy is a rah-rah guy. These guys go about their jobs with the best of their ability and they lead by the way they play. Their play speaks for itself. Their wins and losses speak for themselves. Some people wish quarterbacks are more fiery and have more energy, more passion that way. But the proof is in the pudding. The name of the game is winning and both have done it very well."
Jackson saw Flacco early, in his first few weeks working with Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh in 2008 trying to find a franchise quarterback for a team that couldn't get back over the hump with one of the league's best defenses. A plan was hatched for a workout to find out what really bubbled inside the impassive kid from Delaware with the big arm.
"We had three guys that day at receiver that he had never seen before in his life; that was part of the plan," Jackson said. "We brought footballs. We worked him out on a field that had just been aerated, so it had those little metal things sticking up. We wanted to put him in the most uncomfortable position we could and watch him perform and nothing fazed him. It taught me we were getting the right guy. When we walked off the field, he was the guy I wanted. When you play in the AFC North, you see everything. Great defenses, snow, rain, mud. You've got to be able to play in the elements and he passed the test. And Andy has that, too."
Flacco, of course, won it all last year, including the mega contract to go along with the Super Bowl and the game's MVP. By the time he went into the final game of his third season two weeks shy of 26 on Jan. 2, 2011, which was Carson Palmer's last game as a Bengal in the 2010 season finale in Baltimore, Flacco had been to an AFC title game with three playoff wins. A postseason win and the obvious Super Bowl title are the only things missing from the 26-year-old Dalton's résumé, which already glitters with an AFC North title heading into the finale of his third season. And he's just 117 passing yards and two touchdown passes shy of single-season franchise records.
"Joe's been to the mountaintop and Andy's trying to get there and to me he has shown that he can get us there," Jackson said. "He's got that same type of attitude as Joe. A winning attitude. It's good to be kind of chilled, but you have to have that killer instinct and both have that sense they're willing to put the team on their back and go. Andy is still learning and going through the process, but like Joe he's been able to win and still do that. Like all of us on this team and in this organization, Andy's trying to get over the hump to get that playoff win."
Like Flacco, Dalton was blessed with a great defense breaking in. The Bengals were ranked No. 7 and 6 in his first two seasons and are currently ranked fifth. Flacco was 31-16 heading into that last game of his third season with an 88.6 passer rating and a 61.8 completion percentage on 7.2 yards per throw. Dalton is 29-18 with an 86.4 rating while completing 60.9 percent of his passes on seven yards per throw. He's thrown 197 more passes than Flacco at this stage, with 78 touchdowns and 45 interceptions while Flacco had 60 touchdowns on 33 interceptions.
But this year Dalton has the better numbers with 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions compared to Flacco's 18 touchdowns and 19 picks, and Dalton hasn't thrown a pick in 131 straight throws dating back to late in the first half in San Diego on Dec. 1. Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese cites a similar stretch last year when Dalton threw just five interceptions in the last eight games.
"Hopefully by the time we get another crack at it a year from now we can learn it earlier in the year, not halfway or later," Zampese said. "He's done a nice job staying out of trouble. We've spent a lot of time on how to manage the pocket. Ball placement and where you stay out of trouble. Don't take risk in your decision-making, there's no need to. We've got the fifth-ranked defense in the league, you're going to have enough open guys to throw to as time goes. Don't want it so bad on this one play you stick it in.
"We've managed the bad situations better. We've had fewer sacks and part of that is we're better up front and another is that he's managing himself better in the pocket. Get an incompletion, how to find the back, it's all working together."
Like a lot of quarterbacks, Dalton has struggled against the Ravens. He's 1-4 with a 65.8 passer rating and has yet to beat Baltimore in a game that mattered. Zampese says teams have to be careful not to get wrapped up in the Ravens rolls since they can be deadly in stretches. He points to last week when, even though Baltimore fell behind to New England early, the Patriots did nothing on five straight possessions in the second half.
But it's never a day at the beach for Flacco against Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. They arrived in the AFC North the same season and while Flacco is 7-4 against Cincinnati, he's also thrown more picks (12) than TDs (11) and his 75.7 passer rating is nearly 10 points blew his career mark. He's also got a sprained knee and is playing in a brace Sunday.
"Nobody here is thinking about that; we're thinking about making plays," nickel corner back Chris Crocker said. "I've faced Flacco enough. He can make all the throws. He's a smart guy. We've had some good games against him."
Cincinnati has certainly had good games at PBS against the other three Super Bowl winners. The Bengals have a combined passer rating of 63.2 against Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, so the Super Bowl MVP trophy doesn't intimidate them. Defensive tackle Domata Peko says the mindset doesn't change. Stop No. 27. Running back Ray Rice. He notes how the Ravens are running the ball a little better than they were back on Nov. 10, when Rice was averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Now he's at 3.1.
"We know Flacco's a heck of a quarterback. They got a big lead on us last time, 17-0, so we've got to come out faster and stop the run," Peko said. "We can't get down to these guys. Points are at a premium. He's not a very mobile guy, but he can scramble. It's not his first option. His first option is to escape and throw it down to (Rice)."
That's how Flacco drove the Ravens for the winning field goal in overtime 47 days ago against the Bengals. He got away from pressure and checked it down to Rice. The Bengals don't want to wait that long to find out if he can move.
"You have to figure they're going to do whatever they can to protect him," said defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry, the team's leading sacker. "They could have eight-man protections. Who knows? Whatever it is, we've got to get to him. He's got dangerous guys around him in Ray Rice, (wide receiver) Torrey Smith, (tight end Dennis) Pitta. He's a $100 million quarterback. With that kind of bank behind you, you can do whatever you want."
For the fourth time at home, the Bengals try to break the bank. Gilberry wasn't aware they could be 4-for-4 against Super Bowl winners, but he thinks it's motivation.
"It's definitely blood in the water," Gilberry said. "Hopefully it's a feeding frenzy. Hopefully we'll go out there and fly around. We're undefeated at home and we want to keep it that way."
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