Instead, the Bengals fell flat, and the main culprit was quarterback Andy Dalton.
It has become a time-honored tradition to point out how poorly Dalton has performed either in prime time or in the postseason, with the Dalton-led Bengals winning two and losing eight of such contests. That record dropped to 2-9 after Cincinnati lost to the Browns, 24-3—and on the Bengals' home turf, making matters worse.
On a windy night, Dalton struggled early, with his first drive ending with an interception by Browns linebacker Craig Robertson that gave Cleveland a short field and a quick touchdown. His third drive, fueled by Browns punt returner Jim Leonhard fumbling the ball, led to a Mike Nugent field goal, the Bengals' only points of the night.
That was also the only time the Bengals entered Cleveland territory. The closest they got in the rest of the game was their own 36-yard line. While the wind could help explain some of Dalton's struggles, it cannot completely shoulder the blame. Dalton did not attempt many deep passes and ended his day with an average of 2.6 yards per pass. In contrast, the Browns' run game averaged 3.3 yards per play.
|Andy Dalton's Terrible Night|
Dalton's bad day cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The loss sends the 5-3-1 Bengals into third place in the AFC North and, in the league's toughest division, this could spell the beginning of the end of their season.
Since Dalton has been the Bengals' starter, the team has made the playoffs each year. Though the Bengals went one-and-done in each contest, they at least made it. Now, thanks to Dalton, there may be no postseason football for the Bengals for the first time since 2010.
Dalton's bad day cannot be overstated, either. He was wildly off target, even though he had the benefit of a healthy A.J. Green and emergent playmaker Mohamed Sanu. His passes were too high, too low—or, in one embarrassing moment, thrown away beyond the line of scrimmage, leading to a penalty. That's the mistake of a rookie quarterback, not a veteran who has seen the playoffs.
Ultimately, Dalton completed just 10 of his 33 pass attempts—a 30.3 completion percentage—for 86 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions before being mercifully benched late in favor of Jason Campbell. He was also sacked twice and ended the day with a quarterback rating of 2.0. That is not a typo.
How bad was Dalton? According to Awful Announcing, Dalton's completion percentage on a minimum of 30 passes is the worst the league has seen since 1992. Despite his many weapons, he simply could not connect.
Green had three catches for 23 yards on 10 targets, with a long of 11 yards. Sanu had two catches for 20 yards on seven targets, with a long of 18. Tight end Jermaine Gresham was the most productive—if that word is even appropriate—of Dalton's weapons, with three catches on six targets, for 29 yards and a long of 15.
The thing is, the Bengals have been building to this kind of disappointment. It was evident when they were shut out, 27-0, by the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7. And it's been evident all season—Dalton has thrown only eight touchdown passes in his nine games.
There is a formula to defeating Dalton. One, of course, is the environmental pressure of playing during prime time, something he's never excelled at. The other is defensive pressure, which again rattled Dalton, forced him into making poor throws and made him shrink in the pocket rather than step up an assert himself.
There were aspects to this loss that weren't Dalton's fault, like running back Jeremy Hill's fumble or head coach Marvin Lewis' decision to bench Hill until the second half as punishment. Yes, there were drops. The passing play calls were also no help for Dalton, as Rotoworld and NBC Sports' Patrick Daugherty noted.
However, as Steve Mariucci pointed out (via Joe Goodberry), Dalton "was out of whack," and when the passing game is the motor to the entire team—not just the offense—then performances like this are always going to result in embarrassing losses.
The Bengals should be better than this, but they were not on Thursday night, and Dalton's performance is what sunk them. There is still time for them, with three divisional games yet to play.
Lewis said after the game (via The Sports Xchange at KSPR), "I'm concerned about the (four) turnovers on offense. We aren't together, the quarterback and receiver on the route, on the first interception. We can't have those things. Tonight, (Dalton) had a bad day. He'll come out of this."
However, the fact that Dalton is still capable of having games like this when they matter most is a bad sign for what could lie ahead in the Bengals' quest for another postseason berth.
Maybe this performance could be excused if the division wasn't so close. But with every AFC North contest heading into must-win territory, Dalton dragging the team down is exactly the last thing it needed.