Are the Bengals another red herring in the AFC playoff landscape this year? Right now, it feels like we're all trying to figure that out, and basically, it comes down to one variable: Andy Dalton.
Cincy is off to a quick 3-0 start with the help of their typically excellent defense and well-rounded roster, but this year they are seeing surprising dominance from their offense as well, a big part due to Dalton balling out. He has completed 66 percent of his passes (70 percent when you account for drops) for a whopping 9.1 yards per attempt. He's thrown eight touchdown passes, run for another and has only thrown one interception and one lost fumble en route to a 121 quarterback rating.
So, here's the question: Is Cincy -- and maybe more specifically, Dalton -- another early-season mirage that disappears once the first round of the playoffs approaches, or have they/he taken that proverbial next step? We can't answer that right now, and much of your perception of the Bengals so far hinges on how much stock you put into past performance predicting future success. It also depends on how much you might believe clutchness is a thing -- or more specifically, if you think Dalton lacks it in any fashion.
Dalton's always been a pretty good quarterback, but his career has been marked by astonishingly bad performances at key times, and he's been labeled, along with the Bengals, as a choke artist. Dalton holds a career 55 percent completion rate in four playoff games for Cincy, all losses, and has thrown one touchdown to six interceptions with a 5.53 yards-per-attempt average.
And, if Dalton hadn't engineered a brilliant game-winning touchdown drive this past weekend to help the Bengals beat the Ravens, that narrative would've been strengthened.
But, he did. Will these late-game heroics help him remove that choker label? No. But it's not a bad start.
Dalton has famously struggled in Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium with a 55 percent completion rate, four touchdowns to seven picks, 6.8 yards per attempt, and a 67 quarterback rating in four previous games there (three being losses). His 12.0 yards per attempt and three touchdown/one pick game this week could be an indication that the fifth-year player has turned a corner.
"I feel more comfortable," Dalton said after the game. "It's just the beginning."
"This is Andy's offense," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said after the game. "I've given him carte blanche to do within what we plan to do as much latitude as I've ever given any quarterback, just because I think he's very, very good at what he does that way."
Dalton left an intercepted fade route into the back of the end zone just short then lost a fumble when he was sacked in the fourth quarter, but he made up for those miscues with some big time plays in key moments. One came early in the game on a third-and-5 from the Baltimore 5-yard line. Dalton dropped back to throw, and when he didn't find anyone, he scrambled and dove in for the go-ahead score, avoiding two defenders on the way.
"As you guys can see, our offense has a little backyard element to it," Jackson would say after the game. "It's not just go back three steps, take the snap, hitch and throw. The defense won't let you do that anymore. The real good defenses, they're going to force the quarterback to move around and make plays outside the pocket, which he did."
That movement outside of the pocket showed up in the now infamous fourth-and-1 attempt from the goal line just before the half.
Dalton would come off his first read because he didn't like the angle or the way the defense had played it. Instead of panicking, he went to his backside read, a delayed release by tight end Tyler Eifert. Dalton avoided the rush and delivered the pass that should have been a touchdown, but we don't have to go into that again.
Weirdly enough, this game went into the fourth quarter with Bengals owning a 14-7 lead. The lead would change hands three times in the final frame. With just under four minutes remaining and following another Steve Smith touchdown, Dalton and the Bengals took over for what would likely be their best and last shot at getting the win.
On second-and-10, that "backyard element" showed up. Dalton avoided the rush, scrambled to his left, and held the defender, C.J. Mosley, in place. When Mosley closed on him, he dumped it off to Gio Bernard for a 21-yard gain (and it could've been more had he stayed in bounds).
Two plays later, in the face of pressure, Dalton lofted a beautiful pass down the sideline to Marvin Jones that got them within striking distance.
After a 7-yard run by Bernard, the Bengals were set up on the 7-yard line.
"There used to be a time you would just play system football; whatever coach calls, that's what you do," Hue Jackson said after the game, referencing the play that would come next. "To be good in this league and to be really good, you have to be bright enough, smart enough and understand what you are trying to accomplish when the defense changes. He is well-schooled that way. That's something that takes time on his part, a lot of time on the coach's part, and he does it as well as anybody I've ever been around.
"He's taken himself to another level."
The original formation called for Eifert on the outside to the right as a receiver. After a shotgun hard count, the Ravens showed their hand a little too much, bringing a couple of extra linebackers up to the line of scrimmage. Dalton knew the blitz was on, so in order to adjust the protections and give himself a better chance to make the throw to A.J. Green that he wanted, he motioned Eifert in-line.
At the snap, Eifert and Bernard teamed up to take away a blitzing Daryl Smith -- not an easy proposition one-on-one for the 205-pound running back. The two of them kept Smith at bay long enough for Dalton to get the throw off without being harassed. It would prove to be the decisive play of the game.
"Never any doubt we were going to go down there and score," Dalton said after the game. "That's the mentality you have to have."
Obviously, that's the mentality that you have to have as an NFL quarterback, but I wouldn't have faulted Bengals fans if they did have some doubts after Cincy fell behind 24-21. Perhaps now that doubt will be a little lighter the next time the Bengals find themselves in this situation.
Where do Dalton and the Bengals go from here? It's way too early to know, but the eye test confirms what the numbers tell us -- Dalton looks confident, and is delivering the ball with authority. It's likely that Dalton won't shed the narrative he's earned with poor playoff performances unless he produces in January, but until then, he's given us a few reasons to believe that this Bengals hot start isn't just another flash in the pan.