Unassuming Dalton defying critics with late-season play

Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) passes the ball in the game against the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati Bengals beat the Minnesota Vikings by the score of 42-14.

Trevor Ruszkowski/Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton is unassuming. The Bengals third-year quarterback is rather stoic in his nature, truly living up to the clichés about never getting too high or too low after a certain play or game. You’ll get a fist pump from Dalton every now and then but for the most part he just goes about his business of running offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s scheme.

There have been questions galore regarding Dalton’s progress, questions that began way back in the offseason and haven’t let up. There were doubters despite an October run that earned him AFC Player of the Month honors. The voices of discontent grew louder and regained their foothold in November when Dalton’s play took a downturn.

Dalton has bounced back in December, leading the Bengals to a division title and third straight playoff berth while quietly approaching multiple franchise passing records.

He’s not one to tell anyone "I told you so" but he could if he wanted.

Dalton is 117 yards and two touchdown passes away from knocking Carson Palmer out of the top spot in franchise history for both categories in a single season. Dalton has thrown for 4,015 yards and 31 touchdowns so far; Palmer threw 32 touchdowns in 2005 when the Bengals won their first AFC North championship and had seasons of 4,035 yards (2006) and 4,131 yards (2007) passing.

His five 300-yard passing games this season equal Palmer and Boomer Esiason for most in a season and he’s not out of reach of franchise records for passing attempts and completions in a season.

And there’s that whole thing about making the playoffs for a third straight season. It’s something the franchise has never done before in its 46-year history and Dalton is just the fifth quarterback to lead his team to the postseason in his first three seasons in the NFL. Pat Haden (L.A. Rams ’76-78), Dan Marino (Miami ’83-85), Bernie Kosar (Cleveland ’85-87) and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (’08-10) are the other four. Flacco has a chance to extend his streak to six consecutive seasons this season.

While Dalton isn’t going to pound his chest and exclaim he’s arrived, he’s well aware what these records mean.

"It shows what we’ve been able to accomplish this year," said Dalton. "I think that only happens if we’ve been winning games and doing some good things. Personally it’s cool to be close to those records but like you said, wins are what ultimately matters."

The Bengals are 29-18 with Dalton as their starting quarterback. There is still plenty of room for improvement and things like a playoff win or two or three to accomplish but Dalton has answered many of the questions that have surrounded him all year.

He’s taken his share of bullets, but he comes out every game ready to play, and even in games that haven’t started well he’s always ready to play on the next snap.

-- Jay Gruden

"I’m very proud of what Andy has accomplished," said Gruden. "He’s taken his share of bullets, but he comes out every game ready to play, and even in games that haven’t started well he’s always ready to play on the next snap. The bullets have probably bothered me more than they have him. Unless you’re perfect, you can’t hide from controversy and criticism if you’re a quarterback in the NFL, so if you can’t handle it, you probably have find another job."

Dalton is ranked 10th overall in the NFL in passer rating at 91.0 and he’s been at his best in the fourth quarter of games. His 99.6 rating in the fourth quarter is No. 9 across the league. His 31 touchdowns are tied with Dallas’ Tony Romo for third in the league behind Denver’s Peyton Manning (51) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (35). He’s eighth in attempts, completions and yards.

He is also doing a lot of the little things that win games. The Bengals are second only to Denver when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone; they’ve reached the end zone 32 of 43 times (74.4 percent) once they’ve got inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. They’ve scored touchdowns in 13 of their last 14 red-zone possessions over the last four games. The only exception was at San Diego when Dalton kneeled out a final possession to seal a 17-10 win. The Bengals were 4-for-4 scoring touchdowns against Minnesota in last Sunday’s 42-14 win.

"The field gets compressed down there so you’ve got to be quick and efficient with the ball and understand the defense. The 11 guys on the offense have to see the looks and the quarterback has to do an excellent job," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "The quarterback did a phenomenal job (against Minnesota) of getting us in the right spot and delivering the ball where it needed to be. That was huge. Andy took all of the guess work out of things Sunday. I think that’s big. Throughout his three seasons here he’s done such a great job in the red zone and he continues to."

Dalton has thrown 16 interceptions this season, a total topped by only five quarterbacks, but he hasn’t been picked off in the last three games and in his last 131 attempts dating back to the second quarter at San Diego. It’s a career high for him. He has 10 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 108.1 in the last four games.

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Facing Baltimore is one of those challenges to overcome for Dalton. The Bengals are 1-4 against the Ravens with Dalton as their starter; the one win came in last season’s finale when Dalton was pulled at halftime as the outcome of the game had no bearing on the playoff seedings. Sunday’s game has meaning for both the Bengals, who can secure at least the No. 3 seed with a win and possibly get a first-round bye, and the Ravens, who need to win and get some help to reach the postseason.

Dalton is 102-of-192 passing for 1,178 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions for a passer rating of 65.8 in his career against the Ravens.

The unassuming quarterback knows what he and the offense are up against on Sunday.

"They’re really good upfront, the two outside guys, even the guys in the middle," said Dalton. "We’ve got to be stout in protection. For me, I’ve got to get the ball out of my hands, try not to take the sacks and do what we can to not allow the pressure."