Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE
Everyone knows the stakes this weekend and a win gives the Bengals their first consecutive seasons with a postseason berth in 30 years. But it boils down to the symbolic arrival of Andy Dalton and the young Bengals.
Though the general consensus is one of appreciation, relief and appreciation, dividing thoughts have always existed with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Physically not as fearsome as other quarterbacks but his intangibles and intelligence balances the scale. Some will disagree. Others agree. Either way Dalton is a second-year player with 31 games played (including the postseason) during his young NFL career. Suggesting growth is not unlike a compact room with natural fumes filling the corridors, waiting for a single ignition that sets the world ablaze.
In one regard, he already has.
Against teams not named the Steelers and Ravens, Dalton has a starting quarterback record of 16-8 (17-8 if you include his non-start at quarterback against the Redskins). He's only one of three quarterbacks to generate 20 or more touchdowns in his first two seasons, not named with quarterbacks named Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. Dalton has engineers six game-winning drives, five fourth-quarter comebacks and dominated the franchise rookie record book. Not. He chewed it up and spat it out.
And he keeps improving. Already with six touchdowns more than last year, Dalton is 86 yards passing shy of setting a career-high, has improved four points on his passing percentage, as well as his overall average yards per attempts.
Not enough. Not enough? Not enough.
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Comparatively speaking, which obviously includes his second season playing and third in the NFL overall, no Bengals quarterback generated the type of numbers Palmer did during their first 30 starts. Yet it's not by that much. Look how close the best Bengals quarterbacks in franchise history stack up. Rubbin' is racin' y'all. Palmer. Boomer. Dalton. Anderson eventually blossomed once he got help.
Now Dalton has taken the franchise quarterback reigns from his predecessor, developing his own dynasty/destiny which takes a developing career through Heinz Field Sunday afternoon. Career game? Maybe. Or maybe a little overdramatic for a second-year player at this point.
Dalton, who is 0-6 against the Steelers and Ravens combined, is playing his most important game, save for a postseason rumble against the Houston Texans, at this stage in his career. You know the stakes. So does he.
"We're in control of everything. That's how you want to have it," Dalton said. "In December, you want to be able to have a chance for the playoffs and be in control of that. We've got two big games in the next two weeks, and a lot's going to be decided in these last two. But we'll be ready to go."
In three games played against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dalton has completed only 48.8 percent of his passes for 409 yards passing, tossing four touchdowns and three interceptions -- three of those touchdowns have gone to A.J. Green.
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There is a glimmer of optimism facing Dalton Sunday. Ivan "Ike" Taylor is out, as is Cortez Allen, and Keenan Lewis didn't practice during Thursday's session after reportedly re-aggravating an injured hip. Josh Victorian and Curtis Brown were pressed into action and the Steelers defense allowed over 400 yards of offense to the Dallas Cowboys, snapping a 36-game streak holding opposing offenses below 400 and Pittsburgh recently signed street free agent Justin King.
Dalton is building something here, posting numbers comparable to the best quarterbacks in franchise history.
However there is symbolism involved on Sunday. It's not just the postseason. That's the result of an achievement that Dalton and the young Bengals squad, many of whom haven't felt a win over Pittsburgh, will be rewarded with. No. This is about beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and it's time for Dalton to punch the next milestone with a message of arrival. Otherwise statistics fall into the proverbial trash, as does any result after the game.
It's all about symbolism and this is as symbolic as it gets.