CINCINNATI (AP) — The previous time Andy Dalton played in his hometown, he left without his jersey.
The Bengals quarterback finally ended his streak of horrid games against the Texans last November, leading Cincinnati to a 22-13 win in Houston. Afterward, he spent some time with family and gave his father a game-worn gift.
"It was cool last year because not only did we win in Houston, but it was also my dad’s birthday," Dalton said. "So after the game I gave him the jersey, which was a cool moment. So that one was special just from all the different things that had gone on."
The Bengals (8-0) have something very special going on as they get ready for a rematch on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton has led Cincinnati to the best start in franchise history and a commanding lead in the AFC North.
The fifth-year quarterback has been among the league’s top passers all season — he ranked second this week — and has eliminated all the questions about whether he’ll ever develop into one of the game’s elites.
During his first two seasons, his worst moments came in his hometown.
The Texans (3-5) beat the Bengals in first-round games in Houston during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. J.J. Watt returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown in the first one, and Dalton overthrew an open A.J. Green in the end zone in the closing minutes of the second playoff loss.
Given how far Dalton and the Bengals have come, it’s almost as if the Texans are facing a different team this time around.
"I mean, his team is 8-0 and it’s a quarterback-driven league, so he’s obviously playing very good football," Watt said. "When you’re 8-0, everybody on your team is playing pretty good football."
A few things to watch on Monday night:
PRIME TIME: The Bengals are playing the second of three straight prime time games. They beat the Browns 31-10 on a Thursday night, and play their next game Sunday night at Arizona. Cincinnati’s success has resulted in a club-record five prime time games this season. The Bengals are only 11-20 on Monday nights, but they beat the Broncos in such a game last December to ease the talk that they can’t win one.
"I think we’re starting to silence that one," Dalton said. "I don’t think we’re getting that question as much."
9-0: No AFC North team has started 9-0 since the realignment. Coming into this season, 21 teams had opened the season 8-0 during the Super Bowl era and all of them made the playoffs, with 12 of them reaching the championship game.
GET THOSE SACKS: Houston’s J.J. Watt and Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap entered the weekend tied for second in the NFL with 8 sacks, one behind New England’s Chandler Jones. And they’ve been watching each other.
"When you’re competing for leading the league in sacks, you see those names," Dunlap said. "Anytime somebody is tied with you or above you, you take note to try to outdo them that day. We know with our D-line we can set the tone and change the whole thing."
No Bengals player has ever led the league or the AFC in sacks during a season since it became an official statistic in 1982. The club record is 13 by Eddie Edwards in 1983. By contrast, Watt led the league with 20 sacks in 2012. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year was the first to have a pair of 20-sack seasons.
CLOWNEY’S HEALTH: Houston linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has been limited by injuries in his second season in the NFL. The latest setback is a back injury he suffered on Nov. 1 against Tennessee. Clowney returned to practice this week and should play on Monday.
"He’s dealing with I’d say a minor back issue, but it’s painful," coach Bill O’Brien said. "He’s dealing with it and just trying to work back into it."
Clowney, who was the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, played only four games last season because of surgery on his right knee. He also missed one game this season with an ankle injury.
FILLING IN FOR FOSTER: The Texans are still searching for a way to get their running game going after they managed just 56 yards rushing against Tennessee. With Arian Foster out with an injured Achilles tendon, Houston ranks 29th in the league with only 87.9 yards rushing. Alfred Blue started in Houston’s most recent game and managed just 39 yards rushing on 14 carries.
"Foster’s not there," Dunlap said. "That’s their best player."