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If this was Dalton’s last game, he gave us one to remember

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Dalton goes out on top in what may have been his final game in stripes.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals
Andy Dalton
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

No one seemed to know whether Sunday was the end of Andy Dalton’s career as a starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals - or at least no one was saying.

But most of Dalton’s teammates seemed resigned to the fact that it probably was. Carlos Dunlap probably said it best, though.

“Obviously, there’s the Joe Burrow question,” Dunlap said after the game, “and that’s a realistic scenario. For Andy, it’s a great thing to go out on. Sadly, with the terms being what they are, you just have to make the best of it. He did that today, we did that today, and got the win.

This locker room won’t be the same after today, and we know that. We’ll get together as a team and do something together, and handle everything as it comes.”

After finishing the season at 2-14, Cincinnati has the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and is the odds-on favorite to select Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner from LSU who threw for a record eight touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game Saturday.

If this was to be Dalton’s last game as a Bengals’ starter, he certainly came up huge. Dalton led Cincinnati to touchdowns on four of five trips into the end zone Sunday. Three weeks ago in Cleveland, the Bengals scored a touchdown on only one of five opportunities.

“It means a lot, seeing the way he finished the game today,” Dunlap said. “He dove for the pylons, stepped up in the pocket and extended many series. He overcame the adversity of being benched on his birthday. He stuck to being the leader in the locker room still, mentoring Ryan Finley, who can still be a great player in this league.”

Dalton finished with a stat line that did not seem all that impressive, at first glance. He completed 16 of 28 passes for 190 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His overall rating of 75.0 was less than Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, who connected on 12 of 27 passes for 279 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, good for an overall rating of 79.6.

But that did not tell the whole story. Several years ago, ESPN came up with another statistic, known as total quarterback rating (QBR). QBR incorporates all of a quarterback’s contributions to his team, including how he impacts the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties, and accounts for a team’s level of success or failure on every play.

Dalton’s QBR of 74.2, for reference, had him performing at a Pro Bowl level.

“He’s a true leader,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “Really, that’s the expectation we have for him with everything we knew about him before we got here. He’s really kept the support there and put us over the top. Today, he made some great decisions, [and he] got us back in it [against Miami] last week. You can’t say enough great things about what Andy Dalton has meant for this team, and I thought he really played well for us today.”

Even when Dalton got benched for those three games in favor of Finley, he refused to let it get him down. He attacked his role as a backup the same way he attacks his role as a leader in the huddle - with confidence and grit.

After Sunday’s victory, Dalton’s career record stands at 70-61-2. He has a higher winning percentage than Bengals great Kenny Anderson, who should rightfully be in the hall of fame, and recently broke Anderson’s record for most passing touchdowns. Over the course of his nine-year career, Dalton has completed 62% of his passes for 31,594 yards, with 204 touchdowns and 118 interceptions.

Dalton is a winner in every respect, even though his last couple of years have not shown it. But it is his attitude that has inspired the devotion of his teammates.

The story of Andy Dalton goes well beyond just his time on the football field.

If Sunday was the end, at least Dalton went out the right way - with a victory over that other team Paul Brown started all those many years ago.

“I’ve played my career in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform,” Dalton said. “What better way to do it, if it is the case. Again, guys, I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going to happen. If it is, you always want to end a game by taking a knee.”

Cincinnati struggled to one of its worst seasons in franchise history this year, and fans and sports writers alike were quick to lay a lot of the blame at Dalton’s feet. But Sunday, Bengals’ fans made sure he knew that they appreciated everything he has done here.

If this truly was the end of the Dalton era, all we can say now is thank you.