Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completed only 14 passes Sunday. Usually that would be a concerning number. And usually it wouldn’t be the sort of number connected to a productive offense on the winning side of anything.
But usually a quarterback doesn’t need just that minimal completion total to finish with 220 yards in a blowout 37-3 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Little this season has been normal, or usual, about Dalton and the offense he leads. Especially over the past two weeks, when the Bengals have outscored their opposition 68-10 during consecutive drubbings.
Sure, those wins came against the Browns and St. Louis Rams, two woeful cellar-dwellers with a combined record of 6-18. But powerhouse teams should make loud statements against opponents who are living in steerage.
The Bengals have done that and so much more. They’re shedding a late-season ghost that’s followed a franchise starved for playoff success, while reaffirming their championship-contender status nearly every week.
In Week 13, a dynamic offense did its stomping through more than Dalton’s minimalist approach. The guy on the other end of his long-distance tosses is also rather talented, and he joined pretty exclusive company.
Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green needed just over one quarter to reach a career milestone Sunday. The game clock read 13:40 when he crossed the goal line after scoring on a 23-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. It was already his third 20-plus-yard catch of the afternoon (including a 57-yarder that set up another touchdown).
Green torched Browns cornerback Tramon Williams for 102 yards over the first 16 minutes. Meanwhile, Dalton gained entry into another sparsely populated club with his high-volume passing day.
Dalton averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, which marked the third time in 2015 his single-game per-attempt average has climbed into the double digits. He’s now thrown 11 touchdowns since the Bengals’ Week 7 bye, and only four interceptions.
"He keeps raising his level of play," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in his postgame press conference, per Joe Danneman of Fox19. "The rest of the team know as well as they play, he'll play even better."
You may be absorbing all of the Bengals’ individual and team greatness while still shrugging your shoulders. That indifference has been well earned by a franchise that’s consistently set off regular-season fireworks, with double-digit win totals in four straight seasons, but hasn't won a postseason game since the first George Bush was in office.
Why should you embrace more potential heartache this time as another impressive regular season spills into December? The answer in one word: depth.
Dalton and Green may form the core battery running Cincinnati's offense. The 28-year-old quarterback has emerged as an MVP candidate due to his aforementioned shining production, with only one blemish in Week 10 that came against the Houston Texans’ top-tier defense. But the Bengals’ offensive steamrolling that’s seen them win five games by 14-plus points goes far beyond just an imposing quarterback-receiver combination.
Their rushing offense entered Week 13 ranked a solid ninth, averaging 116.0 yards per game. Then running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for 124 yards on the ground against Cleveland. Over the past two weeks, Hill has chugged away at 4.8 yards per carry.
He also made some friends after jumping into the Dawg Pound.
So that’s two dimensions of a multi-pronged attack. The third lies in how many reliably threatening pass-catchers Dalton can fire to now who aren’t named A.J. Green.
Marvin Jones is on pace for a career single-season high 793 receiving yards. Jones missed 2014 due to an ankle injury, leaving Dalton without a primary red-zone option after the 6’2” wideout caught 10 touchdown passes during just his second NFL season.
Even more critically, tight end Tyler Eifert has been healthy for most of this season. He sat out Week 13 due to a pinched nerve in his back, which was only his first absence of 2015 after playing just eight snaps in 2014. His missed time meant little for his place on the league’s receiving touchdown leaderboard. Eifert still sits atop that list with 12 touchdown catches.
The Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14. Then their balanced offensive attack and the MVP-caliber play of Dalton should finally keep them playing deep into the playoffs.
Quickly we’ve reached the point where anything less than a Super Bowl berth could be the most damning failure for a franchise that’s had plenty of them in recent memory.