The Cincinnati Bengals sit at 8-4, well on their way to an AFC North championship and a third straight playoff appearance.
However, all is not well in the Queen City.
Much like the Indianapolis Colts, the Bengals appear to have sprung a leak at the worst possible time, exposing a flaw that could make their trip to the postseason a short one.
With the Colts, it's an offense thrown into disarray by the loss of wide receiver Reggie Wayne. In Cincinnati, the offense has been thrown for a loop by another second-half swoon by quarterback Andy Dalton.
It wasn't that long ago that Dalton was as hot as any passer in the National Football League, tearing up defenses across the league while guiding the Bengals to four straight wins from Week 5 to Week 8.
|Andy Dalton 2013|
Since then, it's been a different story. Dalton's numbers have backslid considerably over the past four weeks, and the Bengals have won as many games as they've lost.
For his part, Dalton recently told Coley Harvey of ESPN that he's "as confident as ever," despite his recent struggles.
We've done some good things and we've struggled in some areas. For us, the biggest thing is consistency. We've got to find ways to keep scoring points and to give ourselves a chance to win games.
Of course, Dalton then proceeded to falter yet again, posting a 5-of-10, 41-yard first half against San Diego that included his 16th interception of the season.
The Bengals won the game 17-10, thanks in large part to their defense, but that performance and Dalton's own words only underscore the problem.
Consistency has been an issue with Dalton throughout his career.
|Andy Dalton Career Stats by Month|
|Per Pro Football Reference|
If there's been a prevailing trend throughout Dalton's career, it's that a solid start is followed by a hot streak in October. Then, as we get into November and then December, Dr. Andy the surgeon is replaced more and more often by Mr. Hyde.
Even then there are inconsistencies. If you discount Dalton's one January start, his passer rating in November is the second-lowest of any month, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio (2-1) is the best of any month.
The Red Rifle can't even be consistently inconsistent.
There's good news and bad news as the Bengals enter December, where Dalton has played worse than in any month of the regular season.
The good news is, much like last week against the Chargers, the Bengals have found a way to win in December in spite of Dalton's struggles. Their .700 winning percentage in the last month of the year is the best of any month with Dalton at quarterback.
The bad news is that overall, as goes Dalton, so go the Bengals.
|Andy Dalton Win/Loss Splits|
|Per Pro Football Reference|
One would expect that a quarterback's numbers in wins would be better than losses, but the gaps here in passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio are significant. If Dalton is efficient and takes care of the ball, the Bengals are a very tough team to beat.
If he doesn't, not so much.
What makes Dalton such a key piece is that he's the final piece. The Bengals have a great defense and a strong ground game. Add in Dalton, when he plays well, and the Bengals can beat anybody.
The defense and rushing attack might be enough to get past the 5-7 Chargers, but what happens when it's the 9-3 Kansas City Chiefs, whom the Bengals would face in the first round if the season ended today? Or the 10-2 Denver Broncos, who would probably be next up?
The ground game goes out the window once Cincy falls behind, as it did to the Houston Texans two years ago in the Wild Card Round. Turnovers are the absolute kiss of death in elimination games against teams like Denver and the New England Patriots.
Granted, many of the same things were said last year about another quarterback in the AFC North. Then Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens went on one of the greatest postseason runs in NFL history, and the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi trophy.
That's the most maddening part of Dalton's up-and-down play.
He's shown he's more than capable of playing at a level that would lead to a Super Bowl title for the Bengals. However, if Dalton's yo-yo act continues as 2013 turns into 2014, then it's going to be a third straight one-and-done season for the Bengals.
Followed by another long offseason of questions about Andy Dalton.