With their 42-28 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, the Cincinnati Bengals took a big step towards landing at least the AFC’s third seed. The game also marked the third time this year the Bengals topped 40 points, a figure they hadn’t even touched in the previous three seasons.
In winning this contest, the Bengals helped themselves immensely in their quest for the AFC North. Had they lost, they’d be just a game up on the Baltimore Ravens with a contest against their purple-clad foes looming in Week 17.
Instead, the Bengals now have a two-game advantage in the division with just three games left to play. Barring an epic collapse, they should secure their first division title since 2009.
In spite of all that, the Bengals have garnered playoff berths in each of the last two seasons and failed to make an impact in January. Read on to see why this year’s team could be different...
Bengals Can Win with Offense
When people think of the Bengals' recent run of success, they often think of a defensive unit that has maintained Top 10 status for each of the past three years.
But the Bengals also field a Top 10 offense that was instrumental in sealing their third consecutive winning season Sunday against the Colts.
In this particular contest, the defense stymied the Colts’ offense through the first half and allowed the Bengals to jump out to a 21-0 lead. However, as they’ve done so often this year, the Colts fought their way back into the game and trailed by just a touchdown midway through the third.
But Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense refused to let up.
Dalton accounted for three touchdowns from that point forward (two passing, one rushing) and rendered Andrew Luck’s best efforts irrelevant.
While the 42-28 final score suggests a close game, the truth is the Colts only threatened for the briefest of moments before the Bengals’ offense put them away.
And Will Likely Do so More Often in the Future
To echo my last point, the Bengals’ offensive prowess has been crucial in securing their third straight winning campaign.
The same can’t be said about the first two seasons in that run, however.
In 2011 and 2012, the Bengals fielded an offense ranked no better than 20th in the NFL. Both those squads made it to the postseason, but each time the Bengals were bounced in the Wild Card round after scoring just 10 and 13 points.
Because of those lackluster performances, the Bengals’ front office knew the offense had to be retooled. In A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, Andy Dalton had a few quality targets but nowhere near the wealth of talent afforded to most elite quarterbacks.
That’s no longer an issue.
In 2012, the Bengals added wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, both of whom have shown tremendous improvement in Year 2. In fact, Jones is tied with Green for the team lead with eight touchdowns.
Then, in 2013, the Bengals picked up Tyler Eifert to form an explosive tight end duo with Gresham. But possibly their best pick in that draft was running back Giovani Bernard. Bernard’s already amassed 1,000 total yards and is arguably the best rookie runner in the league.
In this particular run, Bernard's explosiveness is on full display. By my count, the Dolphins have Bernard dead to rights five times, but amazingly Bernard manages to evade all of them and finish the play in the end zone. This play serves as a perfect illustration of Bernard's ability and what he's brought to this Bengals offense.
If the Bengals can keep this group intact, then they should boast a fearsome offense for years to come.
Dalton More Than a Game Manager
The biggest knock on Andy Dalton early in his career was that he was simply a game manager. In the same mold as Alex Smith, Dalton’s job was simply to hand the ball off or throw it to A.J. Green and the defense would cover his deficiencies.
But that perception is far from reality.
After Sunday’s win over the Colts, Dalton’s had 10 games with three or more touchdown passes in the last two seasons. For a little perspective, that’s more than Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Tom Brady and just about every eligible quarterback not named Peyton Manning or Drew Brees.
This touchdown catch by Marvin Jones against the Colts was the first of Dalton's three scoring tosses and was undoubtedly the best from a skills standpoint. Jones ran a go route on the play and Dalton lofted a beautiful pass from about 40 yards out over two Colts defenders directly into Jones' bread basket to put the Bengals ahead early.
It's these types of throws that have made Dalton so successful early in his professional career. Should he continue to make them, it'll get tougher and tougher not to mention "The Red Rifle" among the league's best.
Can Dalton Make the Pro Bowl?
Last year, Dalton improved upon his rookie year in virtually every major statistical category. He amassed 31 total scores and upped his completion percentage to beyond 60 percent.
This year, he’s at it again.
With three games left to play, Dalton is well on his way to eclipsing 4,000 yards and 30 passing touchdowns for the first time in his career. Both figures are often considered the benchmarks for elite quarterback play in today’s NFL.
So, with all that taken into consideration, can Andy Dalton garner his second Pro Bowl bid this season? It’ll be tough.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are virtually assured of getting elected to the game based on pedigree, popularity and performance. Other passers like Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton have all had phenomenal campaigns as well.
The odds of being selected on the first ballot certainly aren’t in Dalton’s favor. But as two of the game’s best passers are sure to be pitted against one another in the Super Bowl, Dalton could very well garner a selection as a replacement.
Unless he’s got other plans.