CINCINNATI — The Bengals had a lot to forget about when their offense took the field with three minutes and 59 seconds left in regulation last Sunday against Baltimore. They had to forget how the last two plays they had run resulted in turnovers for the Ravens and 10 points for the visitors, turning what had been a 20-14 Cincinnati lead into a 24-20 deficit. They had to forget about how the Ravens came into the game having allowed just three points in the final 2:00 of a game this season or how they were the toughest team to score touchdowns against in the red zone.
It was Andy Dalton’s job to make them forget all of that and simply focus on the 80 yards that separated them from a win.
Dalton’s season is going to be filled with questions of whether or not he’s good enough to lead the Bengals to the heights they aspire to reach. Those questions ultimately won’t be answered until January, if he can lead the Bengals to a fourth straight postseason appearance.
He delivered a pretty good mid-season rebuttal for his doubters, however, against the Ravens.
Dalton drove the Bengals those 80 yards in 10 plays, capping the drive off with a long 1-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal with 57 seconds left to play. After his first two pass attempts went incomplete, he completed his next three throws, including two on third down to sustain the drive.
It was the second 80-yard touchdown drive of the game for the Bengals. They opened the game with a nine-play possession that Dalton ended with a 1-yard sneak into the end zone.
The situations between the two drives differed in time and margin for error. Dalton’s demeanor didn’t. It’s one of the reasons the Bengals signed him to a six-year extension back in August.
"He’s really not changed a whole lot this season," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I think he’s played very well and continued to grow as a leader and grow as a person. My wife and I were talking about that yesterday as we talked about all of those things. I’ve been very impressed with how he’s grown throughout this season just as a guy in the locker room and his desire to do what he can to find a way to do more as a leader and those kinds of things, which is kind of the next step for him.
"I think that’s something he’s doing now, which I think is special."
The ball was closer to the 2-yard line than the 1-yard line on the game-deciding fourth down play after Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata got significant penetration into the backfield and tripped up running back Jeremy Hill on a third-down. The Bengals decided to spread out their formation with one receiver to the left and three receivers in a bunch formation to the right.
The Ravens were forced to honor the receiving threats, giving Dalton the defensive alignment favorable for a sneak attempt, even one as long as this one would be.
He audibled to the call. The offensive line, particularly rookie center Russell Bodine, got the push it needed and Dalton ended up safely in the end zone. It was the 12th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career.
"That last play was very characteristic of my trust and belief in him and his trust and belief in me," said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. "I told him if the look’s there you got to take it. He didn’t blink. You know how some time a guy will leave instruction and have that blank look on their face like what is he talking about or how is this going to happen? I didn’t sense any of that. What I sensed was a guy who was very confident and he knew that boy if we line up like this and if they gave us a look that he was going to go make a play and that’s what he did."
The Bengals are 4-2-1 and in first place in the AFC North (by percentage points over Baltimore and Pittsburgh) heading into this Sunday’s home game against Jacksonville. They were 5-2 after seven games in 2011 and 2013. They were 3-4 in 2012. They made the playoffs all three seasons before losing in the first round.
Statistically, this is Dalton’s second best start to a season through seven games. But statistics are hit-and-miss.
Dalton’s six touchdown passes are the fewest he has thrown through the first seven games of a season but so, too, are his four interceptions. He’s averaging 7.56 yards per attempt, which for seven games is behind only last season when he averaged 7.73 yards an attempt. His passer rating is 89.7 this season; last year through seven games it was 93.9.
Last year at this time, however, he was in the process of earning AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for October. He followed up three consecutive games of 100-plus passer ratings with three straight games with passer ratings of less than 63.0 and the Bengals dropped two of those three games.
"His biggest thing is the consistency of the offense," said Jason Campbell, Dalton’s backup and a 10-year veteran. "Even though Hue is the new offensive coordinator and Jay (Gruden) was here for three years there’s still a lot of the same stuff that Jay was doing from the standpoint of play calls and things like that. It’s not like he’s had to go through a change in that aspect. He’s been able to grow to the next level, which is just some small things like the third progression of a pass play or maybe this year it’s finding check-downs better.
"As a young quarterback we always think we have to force it down the field. I think he’s doing a good job this year of finding the underneath guys when he has to and making plays with his legs."
Campbell pointed to a pivotal play in last Sunday’s final drive against Baltimore: Dalton’s 53-yard completion to Mohamed Sanu on third-and-10 from the Bengals 20. Dalton scrambled out of his initial set up spot, moved up into the pocket and delivering the ball in a spot where Sanu could come back and make the catch.
"It shows growth," said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "It shows his confidence in Mo, his confidence in the protection and himself to move and throw one on the run and get hit right in the face when he does it. He put it in a spot where Mo could go do what he does."
It’s maybe not something that would have happened so readily in previous seasons.
"We’ve had a relative amount of success but it’s not enough, so now what?" said Zampese. "We’ve got to find more. The more is the heart, the desire, the understanding, the commitment, the us together as a group — it’s all of those intangible things now. We’ve had plenty of time to talk about football on looks. Now it’s all about execution and details and never say die. We’re all understanding that together better and better as we move forward.
"It doesn’t mean you win them all but you recognize the situations and how to deal with them the best you can."