He didn't need to lead a 28-point comeback as Andrew Luck did the day before or throw for five touchdowns like he did against the Jets in Week 8. Through four quarters, the Cincinnati Bengals needed their quarterback to lead the charge just this once.
Hit the big play downfield, stretch the opposing defense; maybe hit All-Pro receiver A.J. Green for a touchdown, as he did 11 times in 16 regular-season games.
On a day when he got less help than usual from his offensive line, running backs and receiving targets, the game was still there for Dalton to make the game his own.
Now, the deep, balanced, talented Cincinnati Bengals will have to spend all offseason wondering whether to stand pat with Dalton—and risk, as the Houston Texans did, their championship window slamming shut—or turn to a quarterback who didn't just finish third in the NFL with 33 touchdown passes.
The Playoff Mystique
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, especially in today's NFL. One could make a solid case that it's the biggest key in any major team sport. It's no wonder we're so tempted to ascribe wins and losses entirely to quarterback play—especially in the playoffs.
Bill Simmons of Grantland wrote a column featuring two head-turning bullet points about quarterbacks in the playoffs:
• In the last eight postseasons, Mark Sanchez, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco are 21-9 combined, with three Super Bowl titles.
Of course, this neatly ignores the other 126 starting teammates on the field when those six men played in those 65 playoff games, not to mention the 132 starters across the lines of scrimmage, as well as their coaches, the officials, the fields, the weather, the crowds...keeping track of quarterbacks' "records" over the years is no way to measure performance.
Does anyone really believe that Sanchez or Flacco are truly better than Brady, Manning or Brees? They shouldn't; all six quarterbacks have large bodies of work, firmly establishing where they are in the pecking order; there's a long way between the former and the latter, though.
Great quarterbacks consistently make their teammates better. Future Hall of Famers like Brady, Peyton and Brees make stars out of unremarkable players. Good quarterbacks may not always be the reason teams win, but they should rarely be the reason their teams lose.
A great team can win a championship with an also-ran under center, as long as he limits turnovers and makes a clutch play or two when it counts. Did Sanchez, Eli or Flacco have some ineffable quality—some "it" factor—that made them better in the playoffs than they are in the regular season?
If so, Dalton doesn't have "it." In fact, he's got negative "it."
Clutchless and Stuck in Neutral
Back in September, I compared the Bengals to a sleek, sexy sports car with a lawnmower engine: Dalton.
"From here on out," I wrote, "the Bengals will have to beat great teams in spite of his mistakes, not because of the great plays he makes."
Early on against the Chargers, it looked as though Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden knew that all too well.
Dalton's cringing performance in last season's Wild Card Game against the Texans (he went 14-of-30 for 127 yards, no touchdowns and an interception) seemed to force Gruden and the Bengals to tiptoe into the Chargers defensive line.
A heavy diet of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Giovani Bernard and screen passes led to punts on each of the Bengals' first two drives. On the third drive, a solid 10-play, 60-yard effort that saw Green-Ellis and Bernard plow through the Chargers defense seven times, Dalton capped it off with a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham.
That was the only touchdown the Bengals would score.
With that boost of confidence, it looked like Dalton was finally warmed up. On the ensuing drive, he hit sideline-streaking receiver Marvin Jones for a 49-yard gain:
That was the only glimpse of the Bengals vibrant offense the Paul Brown Stadium crowd saw all day. On the very next play, just 16 yards from a go-ahead touchdown that would put the Bengals in control for the rest of the game and two minutes from halftime, Dalton dumped off a screen pass to Bernard—who fumbled it away.
The rookie tailback, a playmaker and catalyst all season long, made a rookie mistake. No matter; the Bengals defense forced a Chargers three-and-out, setting up a Bengals field goal.
Taking the first possession of the second half with a lead, Dalton should have been able to keep it rolling. Instead, as the broadcasting crew noted several times, it looked as though the Bernard fumble let the air out of Dalton's tires.
That first possession ended with a Dalton sack, and the next three possessions ended with a Dalton turnover:
The Bengals' downfield weapons, Green, Jones, Gresham and tight end Tyler Eifert, seemed to be watching as helplessly as the Bengals fans, as conservative play-calling and tentative quarterback play put the Bengals farther and farther behind the slowly advancing Chargers.
The score kept creeping the wrong way: from 10-7 Bengals to 14-10 Chargers, then 17-10, then 20-10. All the while, Dalton took heat from the Chargers pass rush, running around haphazardly, making poor decisions and poorer throws.
All the Bengals needed was one play to put them back in the game and on the front foot. On the only real deep shot Dalton took in the fourth quarter, he finally got it to Green down the sideline...and Green dropped it.
Next Year's Model?
In three career playoff games, Dalton is now 70-of-123 (56.9 percent) for 718 yards (5.84 yards per attempt), one touchdown and six interceptions. That's not just not elevating teammates or not good enough to win a Super Bowl; that's terrible.
Two of those games came against the Houston Texans, who, like the Bengals, thought they were in the middle of a six- or seven-year championship window. After a decidedly unclutch 2012 postseason from their own marginal quarterback, Matt Schaub, the Texans leadership decided to stick with him for 2013.
The result: A 2-14 season that put Schaub on the bench, head coach Gary Kubiak on the unemployment line and the Texans on the clock for the No. 1 overall pick.
It's absurd to suggest a rookie quarterback will be the difference between the Bengals winning a Super Bowl championship and being the NFL's backmarker in 2014.
Yet, it's absurd to suggest that this Bengals team will keep making the playoffs every single year until either Dalton overcomes his problems or they are good enough to make up for his mistakes. The window is small, time is short and the Bengals must win now or never.
The Bengals' top offseason priority must be to find a challenger for Dalton's job: Either a proven veteran who can keep a steady hand on the tiller when Dalton falters, or—yes—a skilled rookie who can usurp Dalton sooner rather than later.