AFC North: AFC Championship
"It's all about winning in December," Crocker said. "Let's win out and see where the chips lay. Why can't we win out? I don't see why we can't."
If you ask some Bengals fans and most NFL analysts, they'll give you one big reason why they don't believe Cincinnati will be able to go 5-0 to close out the regular season: No. 14.
That's right. To some, the primary obstacle in the way of end-of-season perfection for the Bengals is Andy Dalton, the player who has quarterbacked the franchise into the playoffs each of the past two seasons, and who constantly is trying to prove himself to those who consider him just another member of a mostly failed 2011 quarterback draft class.
For that reason, as the Bengals gear up for a stretch run that could give them a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs, an important question has to be asked.
Can December Andy mimic October Andy?
As we've written countless times in the past month, October Andy was indeed a dandy. Through the first four games of that month, Dalton threw for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also completed 67.9 percent of his passes, won four games, had a passer rating higher than 116.0 and a QBR above 83.0. He was, quite simply, brilliant. His play was so sharp back then that on the final day of the month, hours before the Bengals were set to take on the Dolphins in a road Thursday night game, he was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month.
And, yes, even though, comparatively speaking, he didn't look as good overall against the Dolphins and ended up taking the game-winning sack for a safety in overtime, Dalton still had a rather special performance in the 22-20 loss. Aside from not completing a touchdown pass and getting intercepted three times, he threw for 338 yards, marking the fourth straight game he had gone over the 300-yard passing mark.
Overall, October Andy was Good Andy.
But now here comes December with all of its postseason potency. If Cincinnati hopes to set itself up for the type of playoff seeding Crocker believes it deserves, then it will have to play its best ball across the next five weeks. That's especially the case for Dalton and a Bengals offense that has looked rather anemic in the past three games.
One look at Dalton's previous December stats and it doesn't appear the third-year star should have any problem showcasing even a sliver of the success that made him and his team so good about two months ago.
After a rocky December as a rookie in 2011, Dalton was among the difference-makers last season when the desperate Bengals were in need of a strong final month just to secure a playoff berth. One year after going 2-2 in the month, Dalton went 4-1 during December 2012. The lone loss came after the Dallas Cowboys made a field goal in the final seconds to win 20-19.
While the level of desperation may be different this December, the Bengals are looking for Dalton to thrive under similar pressure-packed moments during this one. This time around, the pressure on Dalton mainly stems from the fact that so many are fed up with his play from the past three games. In them, he's thrown eight interceptions and been sacked 10 times. Across the latter two of those games, he's completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and hasn't posted a QBR higher than 18.0.
Weather factored heavily in Dalton's inability to move the ball in those two games. Windy conditions at Baltimore and windy and rainy conditions against the Browns sent some of his passes sailing and forced others into the hands of defensive backs.
Although weather shouldn't be a concern this weekend in San Diego (the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a delightful high of 71 degrees Sunday), it could be the rest of the season. Farmer's Almanac projects cold, damp conditions for all of December in the Ohio Valley. It should be noted that after Sunday's game, the Bengals are home three of the next four weeks. Their only remaining road game is at Pittsburgh.
Throughout his career, Dalton has performed better in warmer games. In games with temperatures 50 degrees or higher, he has a 20-14 record, an 85.1 passer rating and a 52.5 QBR. In games with temperatures at 49 and lower, he has a 5-5 record, a 75.4 passer rating and a 32.9 QBR. Dalton's last three sub-49-degree wins came last December, though; a sign that perhaps he's turning a corner in cold-weather contests.
Whatever the conditions and whomever their opponents are, when it comes to the next five weeks, the Bengals can only hope that Dalton turns into the same man who torched through this October.
- The Baltimore Ravens acknowledge they're still looking up to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Speaking of quarterbacks, is Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers on pace for the Hall of Fame?
- Should the Cleveland Browns stay in a 3-4 defense?
- The television ratings for the Cincinnati Bengals dropped this season.
Your resident AFC North blogger asked Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday what the Steelers need to do better on special teams in their rematch against the Jets.
Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers didn't lose to the Jets in Week 15 because of poor offense or poor defense. The Steelers outgained the Jets by 101 yards, and Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's 17-13.
But hidden yards on special teams and Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in New York's 22-17 victory. New York gained 177 total yards on kickoff and punt returns, which had an impact on field position and consistently gave the Jets a short field. This will be an area to watch for Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh's coverage teams have been an issue in previous seasons, so much so that the Steelers fired former special-teams coach Bob Ligashesky and hired Al Everest this season. Pittsburgh's special teams have made strides in the first year under Everest. But his unit probably had its worst game of the season against the Jets.
Smith missed the Jets' divisional-round victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday with a groin injury. His status for this Sunday's game is still to be determined, but the Steelers know the Jets are still dangerous in the third phase of the game.
"They're a very good group," Tomlin said. "It doesn't matter whether Brad Smith is back there or [Antonio] Cromartie is back there. You saw what [Cromartie] did against Indianapolis at a critical time. He's a very capable and dangerous return man, but they have a team of potentially capable return men."
Pittsburgh's 31-24 divisional-round victory over the Baltimore Ravens placed the Steelers in the conference title game for an NFL-best 15th time since the 1970 merger. Pittsburgh broke the tie with the Cowboys (14) this season and continues to pull away from the San Francisco 49ers (12).
Sunday's home game against the New York Jets will mark the fourth time in the past seven years the Steelers will play in the AFC title game. Pittsburgh is 2-1 in the previous three games, with the only loss coming to the New England Patriots after the 2004 season.
The winner of the Steelers-Jets game will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLV, which, ironically, will be held this year in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- In the midst of the biggest game of his coaching career, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had no problem taking time out to pay his respects to recently retired Colts head coach Tony Dungy.
|Michael Fabus/Getty Images|
|Steelers coach Mike Tomlin described his mentor, Tony Dungy, as "the ultimate coach, the ultimate motivator."|
"He's a special, special person," Tomlin said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.
Dungy is a role model to many in the coaching community, including Tomlin, who is preparing Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
While everyone has been praising Dungy's character in the past day or so, Tomlin also wanted to make sure Dungy is celebrated as a great football coach as well.
"He's the ultimate coach, the ultimate motivator," Tomlin said. "Oftentimes he's expressionless in the midst of battle. But those that work with him understand what a great motivator and how he inspires men."