As far as tests go for a rookie quarterback, the Bengals couldn't have designed a better one for Andy Dalton.
To lead his team to the playoffs, Dalton has to prove he can handle the pressure. This is different than overcoming the weekly challenges of being a first-year starter in the league and rallying your team back in the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills.
This is the type of pressure that often defines quarterbacks. Dalton has to handle the onslaught from an aggressive Ravens defense that loves to rattle young quarterbacks. He has to thrive with the weight of the biggest game of his brief NFL career on his shoulders.
How Dalton plays under the pressure will determine whether the Bengals (9-6) earn a playoff berth.
"It’s come down to a good week of preparation and going out and executing on Sunday," Dalton said. "You can’t ask for it any other way. This is where we want to be, with a chance for the playoffs. And, we’re in control of that.”
There's no question that Dalton has exceeded expectations. No one thought a second-round pick would quarterback a four-win team in 2010 into playoff contention this year. He would be the runaway winner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year if not for Carolina's Cam Newton and his 34 touchdowns.
Dalton's biggest strength has been poise. But his biggest weakness has been the lack of it against the Ravens and Steelers, two teams he'll need to beat in the future if he wants to compete for division titles. In three games against those AFC North rivals, he has completed 50.5 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and five interceptions. In 12 games against the rest of the NFL, Dalton has connected on 61 percent of his throws with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis refused to put all of the blame on Dalton for those struggles.
“I don’t know that he’s struggled or if balls went off the receivers’ hands or they didn’t run the right routes," Lewis said earlier this month. "Andy continues to do a good job and grow each week. Once everybody plays up to his standards, things will go just fine. He’s played the way we expected him to play. He’s very mature. We felt he’d be able to handle [starting], and he hasn’t disappointed us in any way.”
Dalton has already made his mark in the NFL, becoming the first rookie since the 1970 merger to throw 20 touchdown passes and finish with at least eight wins. He is one of five rookies in league history to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season.
No one will argue that Cincinnati is in a better quarterback situation than the likes of the Redskins and Seahawks. And the Bengals made the right decision to wait until the second round to get their quarterback instead of picking one in the first like Minnesota (Christian Ponder) and Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert).
Determining how Dalton has fared under pressure is not as clear cut. It really depends on what you consider to be the definition of pressure situations in the NFL.
Dalton ranks in the top 10 on third downs and in the red zone. In fact, he has thrown 15 touchdowns and no interceptions inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Even Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have gotten picked off in the red zone this year.
But Dalton ranks near the bottom of the league against the blitz (22nd) and in the fourth quarter (39th). Nearly half of his interceptions (6 of 13) have come in the final quarter. His passer rating in the fourth quarter is 59.5.
Here's another stat to ponder: Dalton is 1-6 against teams that currently have winning records.
Former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson, who also wore No. 14 for Cincinnati, has a different indicator for poise.
“He doesn’t mind throwing it away,” Anderson told the team's website. “He’s got a good feel for the game that way. That shows you he puts the team first and isn’t selfish enough to make his stats that important.”
Dalton also can beat the pressure with his feet. He scrambled three times on third down Saturday against Arizona, including one for 17 yards. For the season, he has converted eight first downs by rushing.
Many young quarterbacks make the mistake of taking too many sacks. His scrambling has been a big part of why the Bengals are tied for third for fewest sacks allowed.
“That's part of being a successful quarterback, and he's got that. That's part of him," Lewis said. "He's got a great feel for that, great anticipation of it. He learned from early on when he didn't quite get down and slide good enough. He has dived and made first downs when he needed to. He's had obviously a very productive first year, and he'll do nothing but grow and get better at things. It's been good. But he's done well with that, moving the chains.”
The pressure will get cranked up Sunday against Baltimore (11-4), which is seeking the AFC North title, a first-round bye in the playoffs and more takeaways from another young quarterback. Six weeks ago against the Ravens, Dalton threw for a career-best 373 yards and a career-worst three interceptions. This time, Dalton will have Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, who was inactive in Baltimore with a knee injury.
Some might say the odds are stacked against Dalton because the Ravens are 8-1 against first- and second-year starting quarterbacks under coach John Harbaugh. But few believed the Bengals would be playoff contenders after starting the season last in many power rankings (including the one by ESPN).
“It’s something this team believed we had a chance to do, but we weren’t getting much credit from the outside,” Dalton said of making the playoffs. “Inside this locker room, the coaches and everybody here knew we had a chance, we just had to put it all together. We’ll find out [this] week.”