AFC North: Chris Crocker
Manning, an eight-year veteran who also spent five years with the Bears, joins a defensive backfield that includes safeties Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams. Unrestricted free agent Chris Crocker is still technically in the mix at the position, too, even though Manning's signing seems a clear indicator that Crocker won't be re-signed before free agency ends. It was doubtful he'd want to make a comeback next season anyway after entering retirement the past two years. Still, we included Crocker's numbers to give an idea of how Manning compares.
One area where Manning will be a help, particularly at the strong safety position he and Iloka could conceivably battle for, is in forcing turnovers. The numbers show that, like Nelson, he has a knack for doing that.
As you can see, he stacks up quite favorably in other areas, too:
He's barely been in Minnesota for a month, but the former Bengals defensive coordinator already has Vikings officials raving about those same abilities.
"The one thing about Mike for sure is that he'll look at a player and he'll tell us the strengths, and he'll tell us how he's going to use him and utilize his skill set within his system," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said Thursday at the NFL combine. "It's been very refreshing, and I know I'm very excited to get this team built, to add the pieces that we need to add and look forward to the upcoming season."
Zimmer and Gruden will be addressing reporters at the combine Friday.
One of the questions Spielman fielded about Zimmer had to do with reasons why he felt the longtime assistant had been passed over for so many head-coaching jobs before this one. Some have speculated that Zimmer's occasionally gruff demeanor made him lack the charismatic star power some teams have sought in a head coach. Spielman said he wasn't sure about that, but he was glad that whatever their motivations, his fellow GMs kept passing on Zimmer.
"When he's in the office and you talk to people around him, he's the nicest person in the world -- very smart, very football-minded person," Spielman said. "The gruffness part, and him not being polished and things like that, I don't know why other teams passed on him having an opportunity to be a head coach, but I'm sure glad they did.
"It was the right time, and the right fit for us."
To better understand Zimmer's demeanor, Spielman said he reached out to the agents of some of Zimmer's former players to get an indication of what their clients really thought about playing for him. They confirmed what many current and former Bengals who have played for Zimmer have told reporters in Cincinnati in the past.
Before they arrived in Indianapolis, Spielman said Zimmer has, as expected, been a vocal presence in the team's draft meetings.
"I know he did a film session with all of our scouts and personnel people just looking at specific traits that he's looking for at each position," Spielman said. "And listening to him talk football, he has a reputation of taking guys that are good football players, some guys thought that maybe they were done, and yet getting them to play to their capabilities and beyond their capabilities."
Need proof? Just ask Chris Crocker. An 11-year veteran, Crocker spent the past two Septembers fielding phone calls from Zimmer convincing him to come out of retirement.
As you might have been able to tell, the list frenzy hit ESPN.com's Cincinnati Bengals blog about two weeks ago when we started counting down the top 10 plays from the 2013 season. We've also devoted lists to breaking down the team's position groups, and will have even more list-form analysis regarding other items in the coming months.
Such blogs are good complements to other coverage. They can further and firm what has already been reported, or be good jumping off points for generating discussion as seasons get reviewed and the results of others predicted.
Most notably, PFF said it felt defensive tackle Geno Atkins had the NFL's costliest injury in 2013. Cornerback Leon Hall made the additional three-man cut.
Both are, in fact, among the top players on a defense that entered the season regarded universally as one of the best. That alone made it more difficult to replace them, driving up the metaphoric cost of their mid-season injuries.
But, really, how costly did those injuries -- specifically Atkins' -- turn out to be? After all, without the Pro Bowl lineman and the cornerback who was having a Pro Bowl type of start to his eighth season, the Bengals still finished near the top of the league's defensive rankings. In holding opponents to an average of 305.0 yards per game, Cincinnati ranked third in total defense.
A large part of the reason why the Bengals were able to garner such a high ranking was because they got contributions from other parts of their defense to absorb the injuries to Atkins and Hall. Atkins went down at Miami in Week 9 when he tore an ACL trying to make a tackle. Hall tore an Achilles two weeks prior when he was trying to out-jump Detroit's Calvin Johnson on a fade route into the back of the end zone.
According to PFF, Atkins' replacement, Brandon Thompson, and fellow interior line starter Domata Peko, had issues getting pressure and stopping the run. Thompson had two sacks and no quarterback hits, while Peko "struggled mightily alongside him," the blurb said.
It's tough to really say Atkins' fellow defensive tackles played poorly, because while they may not have been getting pressure or stopping the run with regularity, they were getting help from others. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry each had 7.5 sacks, and fellow end Michael Johnson tied for a league-high eight pass deflections at the line. The Bengals' third-down conversion rating was the second highest in the league this season and the highest at home. Even if the Bengals' interior linemen had issues stopping the run overall, they were still doing something right on third down.
It's also unfair to fully pin replacing Atkins' production on Thompson and Peko. They weren't the only ones playing defensive tackle in the wake of Atkins' injury. Fellow tackle Devon Still mixed in a bit at Atkins' old spot, as did ends Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Linebacker James Harrison also played at tackle in certain nickel situations to provide an additional athletic pass-rusher on the interior during passing downs.
Part of PFF's decision to deem Atkins' injury the costliest in the league hinged on the fact that he was the site's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up the year before, and the fact he amassed a dizzying plus-80.0 grade in 2012 from it. That grade was more than double what any other defensive tackle received from the site that season.
Indeed, replacing the best player in the league at his position is a tall, unenviable task. But upon further review, it was one the Bengals actually passed quite easily.
With respect to Hall, though, the challenges for continuity were even greater. The domino effect of his injury and others meant still-learning second-year player Dre Kirkpatrick was thrust into more playing time, as was veteran Chris Crocker, who came out of retirement four weeks into the season. Challenges aside, though, like Atkins' replacement, Hall's held firm without him. Kirkpatrick had his problems combating double moves and deep, wide-open receivers, but he still finished with three interceptions, including two that effectively iced a key win.
Should the injuries to Atkins and Hall have been costly? Most definitely. But the Bengals' talent was just deep enough to prove the pair wasn't completely irreplaceable.
As part of a broader survey that posed a series of questions, multiple players on each team were asked to name the player in the NFL they respected the most. Among the 78 selections, four were Bengals. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning was the overwhelming favorite.
None of the Bengals listed received double-digit votes, but receiver A.J. Green ended up on more ballots than any others. The third-year receiver also was one of two Bengals picked in a survey that asked players to pick one player across the league who they would want to start an NFL franchise with. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins ended up there, as well. Like he did in this survey, Manning won that one fairly handily, too.
Along with Green, veteran Bengals Chris Crocker, Andrew Whitworth and James Harrison made it on the "respected player" survey. Harrison also was among the top vote-getters on a survey asking players who was the most "feared" in the league.
Respect is one of those subjective traits that truly depends upon point of view. No statistics or metrics can truly track it. It just has to be felt.
The feelings of the players who participated in the survey are pretty strong. If one was to compile a list of respected Bengals both on the field and off it, he or she would be hard-pressed to not include any of these four.
Crocker has been in four different locker rooms during his 11-year career and has perspective from his travels that few others in Cincinnati have. During his six seasons with the Bengals, the cornerback's leadership has grown to the point where his advice is among the most sought after on the team. The fact he's been able to come out of retirement the past two years and enter as a solid in-season acquisition makes him even more respected in the locker room.
Whitworth is the longtime stalwart of a Bengals offensive line that has seen its share of change since his career started in 2006. His respect probably grew this season when he selflessly moved from left tackle to left guard following a season-ending Week 14 injury to Clint Boling. The Bengals' already good line was arguably better after the change.
While Harrison's respect likely comes mostly from his hard-hitting, physical on-field persona, his Bengals teammates have remarked often about how they enjoy being around him as a person.
Zimmer was the reason Crocker pulled himself out of retirement the past two seasons and filled in when early-season injuries forced the Bengals to shore up their secondary. Because of that, a still rejuvenated Crocker feels like he owes his career to Zimmer, the 57-year-old who at long last has accepted a head-coaching gig.
So it was a no-brainer to reach out to Crocker on Wednesday to see what he had to say about the opportunity his friend, mentor and coach has waited so long to achieve.
"First and foremost, it's about no nonsense behavior with Zimmer," Crocker said. "It's strictly business when you're around him. He cares about his guys, and he's fair. He holds people accountable. But when those guys meet Zim, they'll see it's definitely about attitude. That team will have attitude. I don't know what all they plan to do or how they'll try to change things, but I know they'll be a tough team."
Crocker first encountered Zimmer in 2007 when the two were in Atlanta for an abysmal 4-12 season that Zimmer tries to pretend never happened. (In 2010 he told writers in Cincinnati that he "never was even there" for the 2007 season because of the way then-Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino -- someone he referred to by three different variations of curse words -- left the team for a college coaching opportunity with three games left.)
A year after that lone dysfunctional season in the Peach State, Zimmer was hired by the Bengals. Crocker, who spent the first part of that season in Miami, came on board when Zimmer stepped up and told the Bengals' staff he thought Crocker could play.
"He took a kid who most people might have thought had a little talent, and turned him into something better," Crocker said. "I didn't put it all together until I got to Cincinnati."
Other Bengals have echoed those sentiments, calling Zimmer an effective teacher and a coach whom they don't want to let down. After a loss or boneheaded play, players would claim they felt like they disappointed Zimmer.
"It's true, that really happens," Crocker said. "It's like when parents get disappointed in their kids. You can feel that with Zim.
"You know, there aren't very many loyalties in this business. It is a business first. But if you play hard and are a good teammate, he goes to bat for you. That's why he has so much respect among players. That's why so many guys want to play for him."
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, a Cincinnati native, has been tracking Zimmer's career since he arrived in town. He was among the first on the team to welcome Zimmer and express excitement about playing for him.
Fired up about Coach Zimmer! As a Cincy kid he's been fun to watch there and can't wait to work with him! Welcome to the @Vikings!— Kyle Rudolph (@KyleRudolph82) January 15, 2014
According to ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling, Brian Robison said players told general manager Rick Spielman after Leslie Frazier's firing that they wanted a coach who wasn't afraid to show emotion and challenge players when they needed to be.
"From the sounds of it, he's a guy that's very passionate about his job," Robison said. "He will yell and cuss at you if you need it, and at the same time praises you when you deserve it. He sounds like the kind of the opposite of Frazier -- a lot of passion, excitement and emotion."
Robison's absolutely right. Which is why Bengals players such as linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Adam Jones weren't too upset about Zimmer's departure. In fact, they might have been among the most happy tweeters when Wednesday's reports regarding Zimmer first surfaced:
Gonna miss you coach Zimmer! Wish you nothing but the best in Minnesota. You brought out the best (cont) http://t.co/6ytnHtHJ5C— Rey Maualuga (@maualuga58) January 15, 2014
I told you'll Zimm would be the Head Coach , that was a good move for the Vikings congrats to coach !!!— ADAm Pacman Jones (@REALPACMAN24) January 15, 2014
Crocker, who is spending the offseason at home in suburban Atlanta with his family, called the day a "bittersweet" one for the city of Cincinnati. He knew there were a lot of people who were sad to see Zimmer go, but he believes many are excited to see him finally realize a career goal.
"He's been through so much in Cincinnati," Crocker said, mentioning the sudden death of Zimmer's wife, Vikki, during the 2009 season. "After that, the city really got behind him. People there really respected him and felt connected to him. Another part of the reason it was so hard for him to actually get another job and leave Cincinnati, to me, was because of that. It was just hard for him to leave because he had all of that outpouring of support from the city.
"He'll be sorely missed."
Cincinnati's loss will be the Twin Cities' gain.
In his first mock draft of the new year, ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. went in precisely that direction as he declared Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard the Bengals' selection with the No. 24 pick of the first round.
Dennard was the second cornerback to go in Kiper's mock draft. Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, the top-rated corner on Kiper's Big Board, went 10th to the Detroit Lions.
Cornerback is just one of the more glaring weaknesses the Bengals will have entering this year's draft. They also will be looking to shore up their depth at linebacker, safety, defensive end, guard and offensive tackle. At linebacker, a cover player who can slip into one of the outside linebacker positions during nickel situations will be sought. When Emmanuel Lamur was lost for the year after an injury in the last preseason game, the Bengals spent the next month scrambling to find an adequate nickel linebacker. Part of their plans included shifting defensive back Taylor Mays into the spot.
To avoid such scrambling this year, the Bengals would like a true cover linebacker on the roster in case something happens to Lamur or any of the other outside linebackers next season.
While Terence Newman, Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick will be back next season, the Bengals still need an extra cornerback in the event injuries hit that position like they did in the first part of the 2013 season. They were fortunate Chris Crocker was still in shape and able to come out of retirement and fill necessary gaps due to early-season injuries to Hall, Jones and Kirkpatrick. When Hall was lost to injury near the middle of the season, Crocker's presence became even more necessary.
Two drafts ago, the Bengals spent their first-round pick on Kirkpatrick. While he started showing signs late this past season that he was beginning to make the transition to the NFL, he still had noticeable struggles. He was out of position at times and completely burned at others. By having another young cornerback come in, particularly if Brandon Ghee doesn't get re-signed this offseason, the Bengals could be sending a message to Kirkpatrick to play well more consistently or risk losing his job.
Dennard has played well for all four of his seasons at Michigan State. Football fans in Cincinnati ought to be somewhat familiar with him, too. This past fall, while helping the Spartans go 11-1 and leading them to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory, he had 59 tackles and four interceptions. He deflected a pair of passes in MSU's Big Ten title game win over Ohio State.
He also has an NFL connection. The Dry Branch, Ga., native is distantly related to Patriots defensive back and former Nebraska standout Alfonzo Dennard. Like many of the Bengals' cornerbacks, Darqueze Dennard played other positions in high school, including receiver. ESPN's draft insiders laud his cover skills and ability to come away with interceptions.
In addition to linebacker and cornerback, another position the Bengals could attempt to draft in the first round is defensive end. With Michael Johnson likely gone because of the high price tag he likely will fetch following a year spent as the team's franchise player, Cincinnati will be looking to replace him. Although Margus Hunt began to impress coaches by the end of 2013, and veterans Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers will be back to rotate into Johnson's spot, the Bengals would like to add another body to help with the depth there.
Possible first-round targets include Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt and Oregon State's Scott Crichton. Kiper had the Chiefs taking Tuitt one spot ahead of the Bengals at No. 23, and Crichton going to the Broncos at No. 31.
Since the year has come to a close, there's no time like the present to take a look back at its latest Bengals regular season through the lens of heroic actions. As winners of the AFC North, the Bengals have certainly had their share of heroism this season.
As you can tell by the headline of this posting, this isn't an ordinary list of "heroes." This one is comprised of those who have made some of the most behind-the-scenes difference in the Bengals' season. You won't see Andy Dalton on this list. You won't see A.J. Green on this list. You won't see Vontaze Burfict, either. Their impact is quite real, and very visible.
So, without further ado ... let's get to it:
Bengals' front office. Cincinnati's brass deserves some credit for the way it handled signings and other moves in 2013. By re-signing Atkins and Dunlap, franchise tagging defensive end Michael Johnson and bringing back veterans like Crocker and Jones, the group put together a team that at least has the talent and depth to go on a postseason run. The jury still is out as to whether or not the team assembled will go on such a run, but the talent distribution on the roster itself could arguably be tops in the AFC. The traditionally cheap ownership group smartly opened its pocket book at the right times this year.
His teammates on the Cincinnati Bengals' defense wouldn't have let him do that even if he really tried.
Just 18 seconds into Sunday afternoon's game, the Bengals receiver had a pass snatched from him as he and quarterback Andy Dalton tried to catch the Baltimore Ravens off guard on a first-play "Go route" down the far sideline. As Jones jogged off the field after the interception, he heard from defenders intent on helping him make up for the miscue.
"Hey, you're all right," some of them said. "We got this," others added.
They sure did get it. Even with the Ravens beginning a drive at the Cincinnati 21 and coming within yards of snatching the game's early momentum with a touchdown, the Bengals' defense rose up the way it has countless times before this season. Held to just one yard on the drive, the Ravens entered the red zone and were denied a touchdown. For the sixth time in 12 red-zone tries on Cincinnati's home turf this season, the Bengals didn't let an opponent cross the goal line.
By the end of Sunday's game, a 34-17 victory, the Bengals defenders went on to prevent their 21st red zone touchdown in 41 total tries this season.
"That's our job regardless of where the team gets the ball. It's to go out and stop them," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "We can't worry about how they got it there. We just got to focus on doing our job as hard as we can and taking care of our business."
That mentality has helped Cincinnati's defense pick up its offense this year. It's a comforting fact for the Bengals as they prepare to host the San Diego Chargers next weekend in the opening round of the playoffs.
"The saying may be cliche, but defenses do win championships," cornerback Chris Crocker said.
That's exactly why he didn't flinch when asked which unit was the strength of the team.
"It would have to be the defense," Crocker said. "We've played really well all year. Regardless of the situations, we just stuck together and played our butts off. It didn't matter what the score said. If we were down, or if we were up, we just kept playing all year."
Cincinnati's back-to-back red zone drives that ended in Ravens field goals at the start of the game were prime examples of the type of play that Crocker proudly boasted. Thanks in part to interceptions on the Bengals' first two offensive drives, the defense was slapped with the unenviable task of not only holding for one field goal, but holding for two before 13 minutes had passed.
Very easily, the Bengals could have been down 14-0 at the first-quarter break. But thanks to the two defensive stands and a subsequent four-play Bengals drive that ended on a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open A.J. Green, they went to the second quarter leading, 7-6.
"Just to have a defense like what we have, it's a blessing," said Jones, who later made up for his lost interception with a one-handed grab. "There's a lot of times we feed off of [the defense]. If we get started slow and they go and they get their shutouts and their stops, then we're like, 'OK, let's go. Now it's our turn.'"
While Bengals defenders like Crocker are also confident in the "explosive" nature of a Cincinnati offense that scored 40 or more points four times at home this season, they are comforted in knowing their defense can be the team's postseason difference-maker.
Around the time the Bengals found out they had received a postseason berth last week, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told his players to take a look at the top of the league rankings in total defense.
"He said, 'If you look at the teams going into the playoffs, our defense is one of the best out there,'" defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "Like they say, 'defenses win championships.'"
Entering Sunday night's Eagles-Cowboys game, the Bengals ranked third in the league in total defense. The other top-5 teams also reached the playoffs, but are from the NFC. The next-highest AFC defense that made the playoffs was ranked 19th.
PITTSBURGH -- It was exactly what the Cincinnati Bengals wanted.
With a national television audience watching, the scenario they were presented Sunday night at Heinz Field was precisely the one they requested at the end of November, back when they first started expressing desires about closing out the regular season on a five-game winning streak. Desperate to convince anyone outside their locker room that they were legitimate playoff contenders, the Bengals knew an undefeated December and a win on the Sunday night stage would turn some heads.
Some heads are currently turning, all right. But not in the direction the Bengals really want. Instead of continuing to turn out of curiosity, those heads are starting to turn away. Days after becoming the talk of the AFC, rightful skepticism about the Bengals will start settling in. Are the Bengals who we thought they were? Are they really ready for prime time?
You can blame two groups for that: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Bengals themselves.
In an effort to restore some order to an AFC North that had been flipped upside down through the first 14 weeks of the regular season, the Steelers turned into Week 15 bullies Sunday, physically and savagely imposing their will during their 30-20 win against an outmatched Bengals team that looked out of place and out of sorts, despite a valiant comeback bid.
Yet again, in another big game, the Bengals appeared to fold.
"It depends on what your definition of a big game is," Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "Is it a big game because it's on TV? Because I don't think any of us think that. We've been playing on TV our whole lives."
Well, OK. Maybe a big game doesn't just mean the bright lights of national television. Maybe prime time doesn't fully equate to games played on Sunday, Thursday or Monday nights (even though the Bengals are now 1-2 on games played those nights this season). But division games certainly are part of the big-game mix. And the playoffs are, too. In recent years, the Bengals haven't been great at either one of those.
The Bengals are now 7-10 in divisions games the past three seasons and 2-3 in games played on Monday, Thursday or Sunday nights in unopposed time slots. Two of those three night losses were against the Steelers. The latter two of those three -- Sunday's and another against the Dolphins earlier this season -- came on the road.
Why is any of that important? Because again, the playoffs, that end-of-year, single-elimination stretch of must-win games, are a concept one generation of Bengals fans don't fully understand. No Bengals team since 1990 has advanced out of the first round of the playoffs, and this year's group looks like the franchise's best chance to reverse that trend.
The high-stakes nature of playoff games make them the ultimate prime-time, pressure-packed scenarios. When they occur on the road, it all increases that much more.
For those reasons, when teams, particularly those as talented and deep as the Bengals, have opportunities to practice winning such ballgames in the regular season, they have to win them.
Against the Steelers, though, Cincinnati didn't really have much of a shot.
A bobbled first-quarter punt snap that ended up giving Pittsburgh the ball on the Bengals' 1, which was followed by a long Bengals kick return that was called back because of a fair-catch wave that raised debate, began a series of unfortunate events for Cincinnati. When punter Kevin Huber was knocked from the game late in the first quarter by a hard, blindside hit that broke his jaw, the snowball swelled.
"It was like, 'Man, one thing after another,'" cornerback Chris Crocker said. "It's just disappointing how this game got away from us so early. That was the most disappointing thing. We were just fighting to save our face and get back into it."
On the same play Huber was knocked out of the game, Steelers punt returner Antonio Brown sprinted nearly untouched for a 67-yard score that pushed Pittsburgh's lead to 21-0.
From there, Cincinnati's defense buckled down and allowed only nine points, and the offense rallied. But it was all too little, too late.
"We didn't make anything happen," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "If you don't play good, you're going to get beat. If you don't make things happen, you're going to lose the football game. That's what happened."
Some of his players felt they didn't come out early with the same fire they had by the end of the game. Pittsburgh had the edge on intensity and energy and didn't give it up, they felt.
Hours before the game, one would have imagined the teams to be in a different state. With nothing else to do early in the day, many Bengals watched as the Miami Dolphins held on to beat the New England Patriots. That result meant Cincinnati, with a win, could take over the No. 2 AFC seeding position from the Patriots. If the Bengals had won, they would have fully controlled their playoff seeding fate. Now they need help to claim a first-round bye.
But if you hear them tell it, that's not what's important.
"Was it a [lost opportunity] to get to where we want to go? No. Lose an opportunity to put ourselves in a better position? Yeah," Hawkins said. "All our goals are still intact. We didn't come into this season as a goal to be a 2-seed. We came in wanting to win a Super Bowl. As long as we can win a Super Bowl, we're in good shape."
That helps explain their continued optimism on the remainder of the season.
"We lost the football game," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "But now we're going to come back and win two in a row at home and go into these playoffs and wreak havoc."
In that case, the Bengals better hope prime time in the postseason goes much differently than it has in the regular season.
The second-year player left the game when he took a hard hit during a play that resulted in one of two third-quarter Colts touchdowns.
Indianapolis scored for a second time in the quarter with 6:30 remaining when quarterback Andrew Luck completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to receiver LaVon Brazill. It was Brazill who did most of the heavy lifting on the play, catching the short pass and dodging six attempted Bengals tacklers in order to score. While swept into attempting his own tackle, Iloka suffered an apparent head injury.
Iloka's return was immediately deemed questionable by the Bengals' training staff.
Following the scoring play, several Bengals, including Iloka, remained on the field for a few moments as they collected themselves. They looked like orange and black bowling pins that had just been felled by the power-running bowling ball that was Brazill.
When Iloka left, he was replaced on the next Bengals' defensive series by defensive back Chris Crocker. Crocker was among those who missed a tackle on the touchdown reception.
"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.
This is the first game Crocker has missed since coming out of pseudo-retirement and signing with the Bengals ahead of their Week 4 contest at Cleveland. He has 24 total tackles and an interception return for a touchdown in the seven games he has played with Cincinnati.
In addition to Crocker's absence, the Bengals will be without offensive guard Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler dealt with an ankle injury all week, sporting a protective boot and crutches.
With Crocker out, the Bengals are expected to move second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick into the slot corner position. Zeitler will be replaced by Mike Pollak, who is making his first start since 2011. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (doubtful/knee) will miss his third straight game, and be replaced once again by Vincent Rey. In two starts in place of Maualuga, Rey has 18 tackles, three sacks and an interception.
Along with Crocker and Zeitler missing Sunday's game, former Bengals offensive lineman Reid Fragel also will be inactive for the Browns.
Here are the full inactives for both teams:
Browns inactives: TE MarQueis Gray, LB Brandon Magee, OL Patrick Lewis, OL Martin Wallace, OL Garrett Gilkey, DL Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, OL Reid Fragel
Bengals inactives: CB Chris Crocker, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Ryan Whalen, LB Rey Maualuga, DT Devon Still, OG Kevin Zeitler, OL Tanner Hawkinson
Just after his team's final practice before hosting Cleveland this weekend, coach Marvin Lewis told reporters Friday that he believed his team would be at "full strength" when it headed out west for its Week 13 contest in two weeks.
Full strength, of course, doesn't mean the entire roster that started the season will be back. It just means the players who the Bengals have been waiting to get rehabbed from different ailments will have returned.
One of them, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, took a turn in that direction Friday when he practiced for the first time since leaving the Bengals-Jets game four weeks ago with a knee injury and a concussion. He was held to limited work. The Bengals had been expecting Maualuga's MCL sprain to heal by Week 13. Since his injury, backup Vincent Rey has started, collecting 18 total tackles, three sacks and an interception in the past two games. Both sacks and the interception came in last week's 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore.
Maualuga, who has been listed as Out for the past two weeks, was declared Doubtful on the injury report released Friday. Taking his place as an Out designation was offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, who suffered a foot injury last week. Zeitler hasn't practiced all week and has been hobbling around the locker room with a boot and crutches.
Along with being down Zeitler, the Bengals also will be without defensive tackle Devon Still, who has been recovering the past five weeks from a dislocated elbow. The Bengals have been expecting him to return by Week 13, too. The missed start will be Zeitler's first of his two-year career.
It appears he will be replaced by reserve guard Mike Pollak. The backup, who missed nearly all of the first half of the season with a knee injury, took Zeitler's reps during open practice periods this week. He has been impressing coaches since his return.
"He's done well," Lewis said. "He's not had obviously much opportunity in a game, but he's done well in practice and looked good. He's a smart guy, and this is why we have him here; to back up the interior, and he's got a chance to do that."
A six-year veteran, Pollak hasn't started a game since 2011.
"You sit there and as a veteran player, you're waiting for your chance and you understand why your chance doesn't come," Lewis said. "So you know the urgency of when your chance comes to make good on it."
Cincinnati likely won't have cornerback Chris Crocker on Sunday, either. The veteran hasn't practiced all week because of a hamstring injury and was declared Doubtful on the injury report.
Otherwise, the Bengals should be healthy for the Browns. Outside linebacker James Harrison, who didn't practice Friday after working out the first two days this week, was listed as Questionable with a calf injury. Another six players who spent time on the injury report this week were listed as Probable.
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)
DT Devon Still (elbow)
CB Chris Crocker (hamstring)
LB Rey Maualuga (knee)
LB James Harrison (calf)
TE Jermaine Gresham (groin)
C Kyle Cook (hamstring)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
DT Brandon Thompson (ankle)
LB Michael Boley (hamstring)
LB Vontaze Burfict (kne)
That's because there is a chance that after appearing to come out of last week's game at Baltimore injury-free, they could actually be without a pair of key players Sunday afternoon.
For the second straight day, offensive guard Kevin Zeitler and veteran cornerback Chris Crocker missed practice Thursday while nursing injuries. Zeitler, for now, appears to be the one most likely to miss the in-state, AFC North showdown. Since Monday, he has been seen wearing a boot and walking on crutches through the Bengals' locker room. Officially, he has been diagnosed with a foot injury.
Crocker, meanwhile, hasn't needed to move around with any aids, but he has been listed with a hamstring injury. Although he did not participate in Wednesday or Thursday's workouts, he still stands a chance to go Friday.
If Zeitler is unable to play Sunday, he likely will be replaced at right guard by left guard Clint Boling. To account for the vacancy at Boling's spot, the Bengals then may move left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the left guard spot, and bring Anthony Collins off the bench to play left tackle. If the Bengals decide not to go that route, they could simply replace Zeitler with backup Mike Pollack, who has been healthy in recent weeks after dealing much of the first half of the year with a knee injury.
Zeitler's injury, if serious enough to make him inactive, could lead to backup offensive guard Tanner Hawkinson being activated to the 53-man roster. Since Pollack's return, he and fellow lineman Trevor Robinson haven't seen much action.
To account for the possible injury to Crocker, the Bengals would probably move backup cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick into the nickel spot that Crocker normally plays.
While Crocker and Zeitler were absent Thursday, the Bengals did have linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee), center Kyle Cook (shoulder) and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (ankle) back. The three all missed Wednesday's workout. Thompson even missed it while sporting a hard boot around a foot.
Here's the Bengals' full Thursday injury report:
Did Not Practice
LB Rey Maualuga (knee)
DT Devon Still (elbow)
CB Chris Crocker (hamstring)
OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)
Limited Practice Participation
LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
C Kyle Cook (shoulder)
DT Brandon Thompson (ankle)
LB Michael Boley (hamstring)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
Full Practice Participation
TE Jermaine Gresham (groin)