The Cincinnati Bengals managed to stave off the threat by AFC North rivals the Cleveland Browns on Sunday with a 41-20 win that brought their record to 7-4 and further cemented their lead in the division.
However, the score doesn't tell the whole story. For the third straight week, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggled, throwing two interceptions while passing for under 100 yards. While he did throw three touchdowns, the real story of the game was Cincinnati's defense and how it bailed out Dalton.
Down 13-0 in the first quarter, the Bengals put up 31 unanswered points in the second quarter, helping propel them to their eventual double-digit win. Of the four touchdowns scored in the period, two were offensive—passes by Dalton to tight end Jermaine Gresham and receiver Mohamed Sanu—while one was scored by the defense and another on special teams.
First came safety Tony Dye's touchdown on a blocked Browns punt, the second blocked punt of the game. Two minutes later, it was linebacker Vontaze Burfict scoring on a fumble recovery. In total, the Bengals defense picked off Browns quarterback Jason Campbell three times, forced one fumble and gave up no touchdowns to the Browns in their three red-zone appearances.
It was a masterful display of the Bengals' top-tier defense. Beyond the turnovers and the strong red-zone performance, the Bengals also sacked Campbell four times, had seven tackles for loss and defended an impressive 15 passes. It was the kind of day that, if the Bengals can repeat it a few more times this year, can take them all the way to the playoffs with ease.
It was especially useful on Sunday, considering Dalton has yet to shake what's been ailing him since the team's loss two weeks ago to the Miami Dolphins. In this three-game stretch, Dalton has thrown five touchdowns to eight interceptions, has had decreasing yards per pass attempt to a new low of 3.84 this week and his completion percentage has fallen in turn to below 50 percent in his past two games.
Worst three-game stretch of his career
Fortunately for the Bengals, their biggest current liability didn't need to do much to win this game. Though Dalton's two passing touchdowns were more than welcomed, the turnovers Cincinnati's defense forced and the generally impressive way it played allowed the Bengals to minimize Dalton's impact on the game.
In the first half, Dalton completed eight of 18 pass attempts for 63 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Ultimately, he had only 13 completions on 27 attempts for the day, for 93 yards, three scores and the two first-half picks. Cincinnati's lead was so great at halftime that the Bengals basically didn't need Dalton in the second half, with Dalton attempting only nine passes in the final 30 minutes of regulation.
While the Bengals accepting just 224 yards of total offense and only 93 passing yards from their quarterback is clearly not a sustainable or advisable strategy in their push for the postseason, it does serve to highlight that the amount of talent on their roster is enough to make up for Dalton's struggles.
A defense forcing turnovers is a great way to cover up any mistakes the offense has made. It gives the offense short fields—like after linebacker James Harrison's interception of Campbell in the first half, which led to Gresham's 25-yard score—and serves to swing momentum.
The key now will be for the Bengals to continue to play just as strongly on defense coming out of their Week 12 bye. If they can do so, all while Dalton finds a way to turn around his recent slide, then the Bengals will be set up for success in the latter stretch of the season.
And considering some of the offenses the Bengals have ahead—San Diego, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Baltimore—the defense has more than enough opportunities for another performance like Sunday's.
Ideally, though, the Bengals need to get their offense right during their week off. They converted only one of their 14 third downs. The run game averaged 3.4 yards per carry on 31 tries. They ran just 59 plays, compared to 79 for the Browns despite a small disparity in time of possession. Top wideout A.J. Green had only seven yards on his two catches, with running back Giovani Bernard as the Bengals' most productive receiver with four catches for 41 yards.
(Bengals on bye in Week 12)
If the Bengals defense continues what it started against the Browns, the team shouldn't have any trouble winning the AFC North title and their third-straight playoff berth, even if the offense still struggles. In the postseason, however, things are vastly different.
If they face the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots, they have to have the ability to outscore quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. If they see the Kansas City Chiefs, the ensuing defensive battle could mean a single touchdown would win the game.
Dalton and Cincinnati's offense must get themselves playoff-ready in the coming weeks, rather than just be content with knowing they have a defense capable of stopping their opponents—especially because four-turnover, two-defensive-touchdown games aren't that common.
For now, Dalton's struggles can be mitigated by Cincinnati's excellent defense. However, it would be better if the Bengals could get back to the offense they ran in October, when a confident Dalton threw for over 300 yards per game, averaged 10 yards per attempt and tossed multiple touchdowns instead of multiple interceptions.
The sooner they do that, the better—but if they cannot fix it in time for the playoffs, one-and-done will likely be the Bengals' postseason fate for the third straight year. Defense can win championships, to be sure, but not when the quarterback is playing the worst football of his career.