Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will likely miss the rest of the season because of the broken thumb he suffered in a Week 14 game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Bengals are hopeful he can return for the playoffs to attend to the unfinished business of changing the narrative that's defined him, fair or not, since he entered the league in 2011.
In every year of his career, Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs -- twice as many times as Carson Palmer, who played in Cincinnati for seven seasons. Yet, the last time the Bengals won a playoff game was when they topped the Houston Oilers in January 1991.
This season, Dalton looked like he had the Bengals on the path to finally getting that elusive postseason win. Cincinnati has been on top of the AFC North all season while Dalton was in the midst of the best year of his NFL career. In 13 games, he completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 3,250 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was on pace to get near his single-season high for touchdowns (33) and his single-season low on interceptions.
The timing of the injury isn't great for Dalton or his team. Still, at 10-3, the Bengals are in a good spot to lock up their fifth consecutive playoff berth. Cincinnati is currently slotted in as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, just behind the 11-2 New England Patriots and just above the 10-3 Denver Broncos. The schedule helps, too: two of the Bengals' last three opponents are the 49ers and Ravens.
But if Dalton's injury lingers into January, that's when they could really feel the pinch.
A promising season paused
Dalton's efficiency this season -- he's sixth in the league in completion percentage and third in quarterback rating -- has helped turn the Bengals' offense into one of the most productive in the NFL. They are sixth in total offense and rank fourth in scoring with 27.2 points per game.
The Bengals won their first eight games of the season before they finally started to slow down and collect a couple of losses. But they were on a two-game winning streak when they hosted the Steelers in Week 14. With Dalton at the helm, the Bengals beat several playoff contenders this season, including their first matchup with the Steelers, as well as the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs.
Outside of Dalton, there are other weapons fueling the team's offensive productivity. The Bengals generally keep Dalton protected, with an offensive line that is second-best in the league according to Football Outsiders. The team has been decent on the ground, ranking 14th in the league with 114.2 rushing yards per game.
Cincinnati also boasts a strong defense that ranks 10th in the league in yards allowed and second in the league in points allowed, with just 17.6 per game.
A history of playoff failure
The worst part about this for Dalton and the Bengals is that Dalton's injury threatens his shot at changing his reputation as a player who chokes in the playoffs. Despite Cincinnati being contenders over the years, Dalton has unarguably played his worst football when it mattered most. With a career average of a 62.3 completion percentage and a career ratio of 124 touchdowns to 73 interceptions in the regular season, his playoff stats look much worse.
In his career, he's gone 0-4 in the postseason and has thrown just one touchdown and six interceptions. In his first playoff game in 2011, he completed 64.3 percent of his passes, but threw no touchdowns and was picked off three times.
It's worth noting that Dalton's playoff losses could be more about the teams he's played and less about the pressure of the postseason. In 2014, he looked bad against the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs (63.4 rating), but he didn't play any better against them in the regular season (a 55.4 rating in Week 7). It's the same story for Dalton against the San Diego Chargers in 2013 and Houston Texans in 2011.
Those losses can't all be pinned on Dalton, either. Although he has some ugly games on his resume, the Bengals haven't always put him in the best position to succeed. As a team, the Bengals allowed 103 points in those four playoff games games. The injury bug also hit the Bengals hard. Last postseason, Dalton didn't have four of his top weapons: tight ends Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, and wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones were all out against the Colts.
Any quarterback would have had trouble succeeding under those circumstances.
Life without Dalton
Despite his lack of postseason success, Dalton is the Bengals' franchise quarterback, and until he returns, they are going to be a worse team without him. Beggars can't be choosers, but there is a reason Dalton was starting for the Bengals, and it wasn't because there's a shortage of able-bodied men who can throw footballs in the world.
AJ McCarron is the primary backup to Dalton and 32 of his 36 career passes came Sunday against the Steelers, including his first career touchdown, aided in part to an excellent move from Green:
The Bengals lost, 33-20, and McCarron had an up-and-down game with two touchdowns and two interceptions. However, he was also without a big target. Eifert, who led the NFL in touchdown receptions going into Week 14, left the game early because of injury.
McCarron will be under center against the 49ers in Week 15, and then he will face his toughest game yet against the Denver Broncos and their formidable defense. The season will wrap up with a home game against the injury-plagued Ravens, a team that Dalton and the Bengals dispatched in Week 3.
A lot rests on McCarron's shoulders, but he won't be doing it alone. Green, Jones and Eifert are reliable playmakers, while Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill can grind out yards. The defense is plenty capable of shutting down opponents, and Mike Nugent is a solid kicker.
If they can hold down the fort, getting a win or two to close out the season could be enough to land the Bengals a first-round bye in the playoffs. Given their history in the Wild Card round -- they've lost six straight times -- that could be the first step to breaking their postseason win drought.
Even more importantly, a bye would give Dalton extra time to get healthy. Despite his own personal playoff demons, Dalton still gives the Bengals their best shot at winning in January.
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SB Nation presents: The most impressive teams of Week 14