AFC North: Marvin Jones

As they read this, members of the Cincinnati Bengals' front office are probably furiously knocking away at whatever item made of wood happens to be nearby.

In an NFL offseason that's been filled with arrest stories and Johnny Manziel's Monday morning twitpic updates, the Bengals have mostly flown under the radar, enjoying a comparatively quiet few months away from the field. After years of being the posterchildren for in- and out-of-season arrests and disciplinary issues, they ought to be commended for their relative good behavior in recent months.

Instead of a proliferation of mugshots and players in police blotters this summer, the Bengals have been taking baby pictures and wedding photos. It's certainly a welcomed departure from what previously had been the norm along the Ohio Riverfront.

I used the word "relative" regarding the Bengals' good behavior because there is, of course, that Sam Montgomery thing and that Orson Charles thing. Both Bengals are in the middle of pending legal situations after respective interstate traffic stops. Montgomery was pulled over and subsequently arrested two weeks ago for driving 89 mph in a 55-mph zone. South Carolina state law, where he was stopped, stipulates motorists traveling 25 mph or more over the speed limit are required to be jailed. Charles was arrested in April after allegedly brandishing a firearm at a motorist during a road-rage incident on Interstate 75 in Kentucky.

Montgomery's arrest primarily received attention after the state trooper's dashcam video was made public last week. During the arrest, the since suspended officer informed Montgomery he was under arrest right after inquiring if he played in the NFL. The officer also threatened to use a taser on Montgomery while barking a series of confusing orders as he tried to get the much larger Montgomery to get his hands behind his back for the handcuffs. Montgomery appeared to be cooperative throughout the video of the arrest, which began with him pulling over and ended some minutes after he and the officer were riding to the jail.

Since a firearm was involved in Charles' case, that incident rightfully gained traction both around Cincinnati and Kentucky (where the arrest happened), as well as nationally. After the legal process began, though, the entire ordeal mostly faded away. It wasn't a topic of conversation during minicamp and organized team activities, which Charles attended. That doesn't mean it has completely ended, though. Charles still has several steps ahead of him. Just last Thursday, he formally was arraigned in Madison County (Kentucky) Circuit Court on charges of brandishing a firearm in public.

What helps deflect attention from the arrests is both players easily could be cut based on merit alone when training camp opens later this month. If that happens, their issues no longer would concern the franchise.

Aside from those incidents, the Bengals have stayed out of the glare of negative spotlight. A few starters have made minor headlines for more positive reasons.

The Bengals have spent their offseason focusing on expanding their families and preparing to defend their division crown. (Wait, what's that sound you hear? Ah, it's the rapid hollow thumping of wooden desks at Paul Brown Stadium. It's a welcomed sound in Cincinnati, I assure you.)

This time last summer the Bengals had just learned cornerback Adam Jones was involved in a bar fight downtown. He was slapped with an assault charge and ordered to trial that October. Given his rather turbulent past, it was easy to immediately view the case as yet another instance of "Pacman" outshining his better half, Adam. When video of the event later surfaced and a judge ruled on the matter, Jones was declared innocent of wrongdoing, although the judge felt Jones and the woman who instigated the incident should have handled themselves better.

Fast forward to this past weekend and Jones turned heads in an all-white tuxedo for a different reason. He married his longtime girlfriend, joining a long list of Bengals to get hitched this summer. Running back Cedric Peerman and receiver Marvin Jones were among those who also got married. Linebacker Vincent Rey got engaged early in the offseason. Quarterback Andy Dalton and his wife had their first child last week.

Despite the situations with Montgomery and Charles, the Bengals seem to have turned a corner off the field. As is the case with every other team, there's still work to be done on that front, though, and that's why Bengals executives are going to keep knocking on wood.
CINCINNATI -- While he waits on a bigger pay day in the near future, Vontaze Burfict picked up big additional bucks this season, according to the NFL's annual report on performance-based pay.

The league released the report's findings Monday, showing the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker as one of 11 players who earned an extra $250,000 or more in compensation for the 2013 season. The report said Burfict earned $315,847.69 in performance-based pay for his second season. Only Bears offensive tackle Jordan Mills had more performance-based pay last year, bringing in $318,243.96.

Burfict had a similarly strong earning year as a rookie, too, leading the league with about $299,000 in performance-based pay that year.

The secondary compensation system is designed for players whose playing time ended up being much higher than what their salary would have originally paid. Late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents who became starters tend to earn the most in performance-based pay because their base salaries are usually very low.

Burfict, an undrafted free agent from Arizona State, had a base salary of $390,000 in 2012. He had a base salary of $480,000 in 2013. Injuries forced Burfict into the starting rotation his rookie season, when he went on to lead the team with 127 tackles. Not only did he lead the team in tackles during his Pro Bowl 2013 season, but he led the league and set a franchise record with 171.

Cincinnati's next-highest earning player on last season's performance-based pay scale was safety George Iloka, who received more than $281,000. Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones received an additional $159,000 and $156,000, respectively.

The extra cash Burfict made could be a precursor of what's to come in the coming months or year. The linebacker will become a restricted free agent at the end of next season. It's quite clear the Bengals would like to make him part of their free agency plans this year, either re-signing him this offseason or at some point early in the 2014 regular season. The timing of Burfict's next contract could be impacted by the timing of quarterback Andy Dalton's second deal. Owner and president Mike Brown has already made it clear that Dalton is the piece the team is looking to shore up first and foremost. He, too, will be a free agent after next year.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 7
Preseason power ranking: 9

Biggest surprise: Giovani Bernard. When the Bengals drafted Bernard in the second round of April's NFL draft, there was a belief that -- in time -- he would be the answer to the franchise's long-documented playmaking troubles. It had been decades since the Bengals had a dynamic player who had fans buzzing the instant he touched the football. That's who Bernard was this season. While the hope was that the shifty, speedy ball carrier would be an adequate counter to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' bruising style, few anticipated just how much he would take over. He had more than 1,200 total yards to go along with eight touchdowns. He was tied for second in scores among rookie running backs. Also a surprise? Bernard's ball insecurity. After fumbling just once in the regular season, he was stripped near the goal line on a pivotal reception late in the first half of Sunday's AFC playoff loss.

Biggest disappointment: The entire team. Once again, the Bengals couldn't close out a playoff appearance with a playoff win, thereby extending their postseason victory drought to 23 years. They had a real chance to snap that streak this year, too. The talent was there. The coaching, for the most part, was there. The schemes were there. The buzz was there. The internal confidence seemed to be there, as well. But when the lights got bright and the stage got big again, the Bengals, like so many times before, simply couldn't get it done. Even though they went 11-5 and won the AFC North, this was supposed to be a Super Bowl season, not another one-and-done year.

Biggest need: Aggressive postseason play calling. For the third consecutive playoff game, the Bengals ran the ball significantly fewer times than their preseason average. Yes, late in games when a team is trailing by wide margins, it has to pass. But Cincinnati was only down four at the start of the third quarter in Sunday's game against a team it had been successful running against in the previous six quarters (the Bengals and Chargers had met just 35 days before). The Bengals got too conservative too early, and it arguably cost them the game. Other than that, they still have the pieces in place for true success. Even with possible losses in free agency or in the coaching ranks, they have the talent to be great next year. They just need to make sure they stay aggressive and hungry when they get back in the playoffs.

Team MVP: Vontaze Burfict. The linebacker led the league in tackles with 171, and contributed to a series of turnovers throughout the year. A fearless defender who rarely took plays off, Burfict's passion spilled over into the rest of the defense. While others may have been more vocal than the second-year linebacker, he was the unquestioned on-field leader of the NFL's No. 3 defensive unit. Not only did he call plays, but he was part of virtually every one, it seemed.

CINCINNATI -- In a room packed with reporters late Sunday afternoon, 10 silent seconds ticked by between the time Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis ended his opening postgame comments and was asked his first question.

"Is this your toughest day as a coach?" a local television reporter finally ventured.

"Tough day," Lewis said. "Yeah it is. Tough day. It's disappointing."

[+] EnlargeBengals
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis is now in the final year of his 2011 extension.
There have now been five days like this one in Lewis' 11-year tenure as the Bengals' leader. Five times he has been to the playoffs, and five times he's exited with a first-round defeat.

On most teams, such a string of misfortunes would lead to firings, scheme changes and head rolls. Put it this way about the Bengals: Some changes should and likely will come this offseason, but don't expect any to result in a head-coaching vacancy.

Why? Think back to Jan. 4, 2011.

In the days leading up to that date, it looked a lot like Lewis was about to be booted after going 4-12 the previous regular season. But Bengals owner Mike Brown caught his fans and those covering the team off guard, completely reversing course and announcing in a news conference that Lewis was being retained and extended as head coach. It was his way of giving Lewis a blank slate, and a brand new opportunity to build the program the way he wanted in hopes of getting it back to the playoffs, and back, and back. Lewis' latest contract expires after the 2014 season.

Thanks to a strong draft that year and in the years since, Lewis has done exactly what Brown expected. He's made consecutive trips to the postseason. Three straight, in fact; an accomplishment no other coach had been able to reach in the 45 years the franchise has existed. For that alone, he has the respect and support of his owner.

Lewis isn't going anywhere ... for now.

When asked what on the team needed to change in the wake of the string of playoff losses -- which actually stretch all the way back to the 1990 season -- receiver Marvin Jones stated it perfectly.

"The only thing that needs to change is us just winning the game," Jones said. "That's pretty much it. Taking advantage of our opportunities. The games that we lost, we didn't take advantage of our opportunities."

Other Bengals shared that perspective.

"It is what it is," rookie running back Giovani Bernard said. "Doesn't matter what the year is, you're losing in the first round. It's always disappointing."

What may make this particular exit more disappointing than others Lewis has had was the fact that this year's group finally had the roster that the coaching staff had been trying for so long to assemble. An already good defense was even more talented than it had been in recent years. The offensive line finished the regular season as arguably one of the league's best statistically. Playmakers like Jones, Bernard, A.J. Green and BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave the Bengals a multi-pronged offensive attack that proved difficult to defend often this year, particularly at home.

Cincinnati had something special, it seemed.

"The type of players we have, the high-character players we have, we wanted special things for them this year," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "They worked so hard toward that goal.

"We just have to live with another tough experience and hopefully grow from it."

After three straight playoff losses, the Bengals are finding there's plenty of room left to grow. With Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton possibly in contract years next season, the only question to ask now is: Do the Bengals still have time to grow?

We'll know for sure in about 365 days.
CINCINNATI -- About 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, just as the Cincinnati Bengals were escaping the windy, snowy conditions that blanketed the day's practice inside Paul Brown Stadium, temperature gauges across the city began dipping sharply into the low 20s.

About the same time, some 2,100 miles away, San Diego was having a typically San Diego day. Sunny skies and 75-degree temperatures covered the area under the golden Southern California sun.

The San Diego Chargers might want to bottle up that warmth, because when they travel to the Ohio Valley for an AFC playoff game against the Bengals on Sunday, they won't be feeling it. Instead, they'll be exposed to the same conditions the Bengals saw Thursday.

[+] EnlargePaul Brown Stadium
AP Photo/Scott BoehmDealing with winter weather is a fact of life at Paul Brown Stadium, something the Bengals hope plays to their advantage on Sunday.
The Bengals believe their experience practicing and playing in it is a key advantage.

"Oh yes, it's a big difference," Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said when asked about the impact weather can have on a team. "Cold-weather teams play well in cold weather. You get a team like Miami or San Diego -- from a place where the weather's always nice -- in this 20-degree weather, it's a big difference on your body."

According to the National Weather Service, snow and freezing rain are in the forecast for Cincinnati on Sunday, as are steadily falling temperatures that will get as low as 7 degrees by that night. It will be the third time this season the Bengals have played a game that saw temperatures remain below 40. They are 1-1 in those games.

On Dec. 8, the Bengals battled through freezing rain and a pregame delay brought on by a snow shower to beat the Colts, 42-28. A week later, they played in 15-degree temperatures in a 30-20 loss at Pittsburgh.

In the days leading up to Cincinnati's game against Indianapolis, coach Marvin Lewis coined a new term, "Bengal weather," to describe the bitterly cold conditions his team was about to play in that weekend. It was his way of acknowledging the harsh weather that can become an added element in games that take place at AFC North stadiums. Much like it is in Cincinnati, the weather in Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh can be particularly unpleasant in winter for teams that don't practice in it as often as teams in this division do.

"That's part of us. That's part of our toughness," Lewis said then about playing in cold weather. "It's just the way we're put together."

Before Bengals fans start prematurely celebrating a win this Sunday, though, be reminded of this simple fact: even though the Chargers don't practice in weather like what they'll see this weekend, they've still played in it before, and played well.

"It can be an advantage [for us] but at the same time, they went up to Denver," Bengals receiver Marvin Jones said.

San Diego traveled to Denver and knocked off the Broncos on a Thursday night last month in 35-degree temperatures. The week before the Bengals beat them in San Diego on Dec. 1, the Chargers also braved temperatures of 25 degrees and below to claim an overtime road win against Kansas City. Quarterback Philip Rivers is 5-3 in his career in games in which it was 35 degrees or lower at kickoff.

So, maybe it's not much of an advantage after all.

Either way, the Bengals still plan on treating their "Bengal weather" as if it is a sort of 13th man.

"We're used to it," Gilberry said. "There is no bubble [indoor practice facility]. When it rains, sleets or snows, we're working. We love it because come game day, it's normal to us. It's not like we have to prepare for it. It's normal."

At times, the Bengals do use a bubble. When Lewis sees fit, the team is bused some two miles north of downtown to the University of Cincinnati, where it practices inside the school's indoor bubble. The Bengals have used the facility twice this season. With temperatures expected to touch single-digits Friday morning, there is a chance they end up there later in the day in order to keep players from getting sick.

Whether they practice in it or not Friday, the Bengals are embracing playing in the harrowing conditions this weekend.

"That's just our territory," Jones said.

Defense proves it can carry Bengals

December, 29, 2013
CINCINNATI -- Frustrated, Marvin Jones was about ready to put his head in his hands and disappear from the 62,000-plus who had just filed into Paul Brown Stadium.

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.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 16

December, 23, 2013
CINCINNATI -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings:

Mind-boggling Bernard: Bengals running back Giovani Bernard did it again. He wowed all those watching with yet another dazzling, tackle-breaking, defender-avoiding run. On one third-quarter run after the catch, he completely confounded the Vikings as he cut, spun, shook, stiff-armed and danced his way to a 41-yard gain off a short screen that began near midfield. On the next play, Mohamed Sanu's touchdown catch gave Cincinnati a 28-point second-half lead. In all, five Vikings missed tackles on Bernard's run that included a spin move, two jump-cuts and a stiff-arm. The play was reminiscent of a fourth-quarter 35-yard touchdown run Bernard had against the Dolphins on Halloween. That play was completed with a flip into the end zone. Asked Sunday what he said to Bernard after the latest run, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden smiled and said: "He should have scored." Bernard was wrestled down at the Minnesota 7.

Playmakers: Bernard wasn't the only Bengal with a head-turning play. Cincinnati's receivers got in on the act as well. It started with Marvin Jones' diving catch out of bounds and continued with Andrew Hawkins' leaping grab deep in Vikings territory to set up another score. At one point, the Bengals appeared in such a quarterback-receiver rhythm that anything thrown within a 15-yard radius of a particular pass-catcher was going to get caught. Quarterback Andy Dalton's completion percentage reflected that fact, too. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes for the fifth time this season. Along with those receptions, the Bengals had a quirky interception. As cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went up to defend one pass -- he appeared to make contact with the receiver worthy of pass interference -- the ball hit his helmet and bounced in the sky. Safety George Iloka, who fell and was on his back, reached his hands out as the ball was falling. It fell right into his lap for his first career interception. It was one of three picks for the Bengals on Sunday.

Forty times four club: Thanks in large part to Dalton's four-touchdown, 366-yard passing effort, the Bengals hit the 40-point mark for a fourth consecutive home game. They also scored 42 points in the previous home game against the Indianapolis Colts. They scored 41 against the Cleveland Browns the home game before that, and hit 49 against the Jets a game before that. In most of those other games, Cincinnati had a better run-pass average than it had Sunday. On 37 total carries, the Bengals picked up only 81 yards for a 2.19 average. They didn't need to stay on the ground, though. An injury-depleted Vikings secondary had enough soft zones for Dalton to routinely find open receivers.

Powell does enough: When Kevin Huber was placed on injured reserve Tuesday following a hit that broke his jaw and cracked vertebrae in his neck, the Bengals were simply looking for a replacement who could do a good enough job. Shawn Powell may not have been exceptional Sunday, but he was strong. Of his four punts, only one was returned. That return only happened because the ball drifted into the middle of the field. With the rest of the punts booted toward the sideline, returner Marcus Sherels couldn't break away. Overall, the Bengals' special-teams units didn't play their best Sunday, but Powell kept field position mostly in Cincinnati's favor.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 22, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-14 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.

What it means: Sunday's victory means the Bengals have -- for one week, at least -- done exactly what they've been preaching since last Sunday's loss at Pittsburgh. They have controlled what they can control. The only way they can be assured that their postseason fate is playing out precisely the way they want is to simply win and win some more. Now that they have done that for one week, they have to do it one more when they play the Ravens in their final AFC North game of the season. At the time Sunday's early-afternoon game ended, the Bengals appeared headed toward clinching a third straight playoff bid. They had to wait to see if the Miami Dolphins would end up losing to the Buffalo Bills. A Miami loss would clinch that playoff for the Bengals. The late-afternoon New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game also had implications on the division race and the AFC's No. 2 seeding. After Cincinnati's victory, a Ravens win in that game would be enough to give the Bengals the conference's No. 2 playoff seed. A Patriots win would give Cincinnati the division title.

Stock watch: Andy Dalton: rising. As embattled as he has been all season, the Cincinnati quarterback has actually put together a solid month so far. With a game left in the season, he has played some of his best football of the year of late. It was tough to see that last week at Pittsburgh because of how far the Bengals fell behind in that game, but he kept them in the ballgame with a 230-yard, two-touchdown showing. Against a Vikings secondary that had several injuries, Dalton posted a career-best 136.5 passer rating in Sunday's win. He also completed 71 percent of his passes (27-for-38), throwing for 366 yards. It was the fifth time Dalton went over the 300-yard passing mark this year.

Catching Andy: Dalton's passing numbers were supported by a strong outing by his pass-catchers. A.J. Green paced the group with seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu and tight end Jermaine Gresham also had touchdowns. Fellow receiver Marvin Jones had six receptions for 85 yards, including a diving grab along the Bengals' sideline. It was one of several head-turning plays the Bengals had, including Andrew Hawkins' awkward leaping grab in the red zone that set up Gresham's score.

What's next? Cincinnati looks to close out the regular season on a high next Sunday when it hosts Baltimore in the Week 17 finale. The Bengals lost the teams' previous meeting this year, falling in overtime, 20-17. Green sent the game to the extra period when he caught a 51-yard touchdown pass on a Hail Mary from Dalton as time expired in regulation. The Bengals also will be putting their undefeated home record (7-0) on the line next week.
CINCINNATI -- With the regular season in its final stages, we'll be examining each Friday through Week 17 what we'd like to see particular Cincinnati Bengals players or position groups do with the remainder of the season.

We started last week by offering four things we'd like to see receiver A.J. Green do over the season's final four games. This Friday, we're looking at the three things we'd like to see quarterback Andy Dalton do in the final three games. Next week, we'll do two things and then down to one thing we'd like to see one person or position group do in the game that's left. Make sense? We hope so.

Here are the three things I'd like to see Dalton do the rest of the way:

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTo make a deep playoff run, the Bengals need Andy Dalton be less streaky and more consistent.
Tap into a well of consistency. It's no secret that the one problem that has resurfaced throughout Dalton's three-year career has been his inconsistency. For three weeks, he can play the best football of his life. For four more, he can look like someone just handed him a ball for the first time. If the Bengals are going to end the regular season the way most believe they can, Good Andy is going to have to return, and not just for one or two weeks. If Dalton wants to officially silence his critics and prove his value, he needs to showcase the better version of himself for five or six weeks or more. Perhaps the most frustrating part of Dalton's hot and cold play is the fact that when he's good, he's really good. That stretch in October in which he led the Bengals to a 4-0 record and posted a string of 300-yard games? That was impressive. The methodical manner in which he routinely broke down Indianapolis' defense on drive after drive last week? That had shades of elite quarterback play.

With an offensive line that features the physical Andrew Whitworth at left guard and the athletic Anthony Collins sealing the edge, Dalton has one of the best protection units in the NFL. He was barely pressured last week and hasn't been sacked once in the past three games. With such protection in front of him, one has to imagine his confidence will increase and his trust in the players around him will go up, as well. Additionally, the arrival of his running game in recent weeks has shown the Bengals can run a balanced offense. There is no reason Bad Andy should come back this season.

Finish with two 300-yard passing games. This is actually a lot easier said than done, particularly when the type of balance that we just referenced starts showing up in an offense. Still, we'd like to see Dalton finish the year with at least two 300-yard passing games across this final three-game stretch. It's definitely doable. If it doesn't happen this week at Pittsburgh, there are reasons to believe Dalton could cross that threshold against the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens in the final two weeks of the season. For the record, he's already gone over 300 passign yards four times this season.

The reason it might be hard to expect a 300-yard game this weekend is because the Steelers feature a pass defense that is every bit as good as the Bengals'. In a three-way tie with the Browns, the Bengals and Steelers rank seventh in the league in pass defense. Each team enters the week having allowed just 222.38 yards of passing offense per game. Baltimore isn't too far away from that, giving up an average of 231.69 yards, but Dalton did throw for 274 in the previous meeting with the Ravens last month. Of course, 51 of those yards came on the game-tying Hail Mary to Green at the end of regulation. As far as Minnesota goes, the Vikings boast the league's third-worst pass defense.

Find Green. In order to keep winning games, it would be in Dalton's best interest to keep spreading the ball around to his different playmakers. A.J. Green isn't the only person on this team who can catch a pass. Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, both tight ends and rookie running back Giovani Bernard have all been more than capable of snatching a pass from Dalton and picking up big yards after it. But it would be nice to see in these final games enough playmaking opportunities for Green to capitalize upon some of what we mentioned last week. Among other things, we said we wanted to see Green have another 100-yard game and another multi-touchdown game. Neither happened last week.

For Green's sake, it would be nice if such a performance could come against Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor on Sunday. Taylor has owned Green the last two times the teams played, holding him to seven catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. In order to answer his own critics about facing tough division cornerbacks, Green certainly would enjoy having a big 100-yard, multiscore game.

With December chill comes October Andy

December, 8, 2013
Andy DaltonAndrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday against the Colts.

CINCINNATI -- At 25 years of age, Andy Dalton might be young, but he is far from naive.

The Cincinnati Bengals' third-year quarterback has heard the talk that has swirled around him his entire career. He's quite familiar with the love-hate relationship fans and media alike have for his constantly shifting play.

To the uninitiated, it's the type of play that would do Forrest Gump's box of chocolates proud -- you never know what you're going to get.

Actually, maybe we do. When it comes to this season, all it appears the Bengals need to do is convince Dalton that every game from here forward is taking place in the month of October. On a chilly December Sunday that featured below freezing temperatures and started with Paul Brown Stadium blanketed by snow and ice, Dalton was as hot as he was during so many Sunday afternoons two months ago.

With a 275-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 42-28 win against the Indianapolis Colts, he had arguably his best outing in seven weeks. The 275 yards were the most he had thrown for in a game since his 338 yards in a 22-20 overtime loss at Miami on Halloween. His sack-less, turnover-less day also was his first since the Bengals beat Pittsburgh in Cincinnati the second week of the season.

"I felt like I did some good things," Dalton said. "I was consistent getting completions, I was finding the open guy and guys were making plays.

"I have to keep playing like I did [Sunday], and good things will happen for us."

Yep, do that.

For most of the past seven weeks, we've been lamenting the fact that October Andy seemed to be the good version of the Bengals' star quarterback. The player who has taken the field since being named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month of October has looked anything but an elite quarterback. Until Sunday, he had been downright miserable, posting QBR ratings that never made it above 44.4, and interception numbers that had opposing defensive backs salivating at the chance to face him.

In the five games entering Sunday's, Dalton had been picked off 10 times.

Something that appeared to help Dalton against the Colts was the fact that he wasn't pressured much. He only took pressures on four passing plays. That's a vastly different story than what occurred in the games against the Dolphins and Ravens near the start of his recent decline. At Miami, he was pressured on 13 drop backs. Against the Ravens, he felt the pressure 14 times. The past three games, he's been pressured a combined 10 times.

When Dalton wasn't pressured Sunday, he was as effective as he's been all season. On non-pressure plays, he had a 95.8 QBR and a 132.9 passer rating. All but two of his passing yards came on those plays, as well.

What led to the lack of pressures? It was a sturdy pocket that seldom burst. When it did, he was able to avoid getting sacked and throw passes away if needed.

"Every quarterback needs [that], unless you're going to run around and make things happen," coach Marvin Lewis said.

One reason Dalton believes he and his receivers, running backs and line have been in sync has to do with the momentum that has built, particularly since the bye.

"We have a lot of confidence," Dalton said. "We know what we're capable of doing. It's about going out and performing each week. We have to keep this going. We have a lot of momentum. We have to keep it going through these last couple of games."

Ask most Bengals about why the offensive confidence has been heightened, and they'll say veteran Andrew Whitworth's move from left tackle to left guard has had something to do with it. If you ask Whitworth, though, he'll say the credit goes to Dalton for remaining the same, regardless how negative the perception of his play has been.

While answering questions about Cincinnati's offense, Whitworth barely broke his speaking stride as Dalton came over and reached a fist between the crush of cameras and reporters. As he continued to make his point, Whitworth reached out and gave Dalton a fist-pump and a head nod before the quarterback left for home.

"The funny part with Andy is that he doesn't change, and he doesn't adjust for anybody," Whitworth said. "That's a really neat thing about him. He just stays who he is and tries to improve himself, and that's an awesome characteristic to have. I'm just happy for him to have a day like [Sunday], and for us as an offense to have this kind of day. Because if we can continue to turn this thing north, then we've got a chance to really do what we want."

What do the Bengals want? To finish the season on a 6-0 run and with a seeding that will earn them a first-round bye and home-field advantage. While their defense will play a key role in allowing that to happen, the play of their quarterback from here on will be equally important.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 8, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-28 victory against the Indianapolis Colts.

What it means: The Bengals are finally showing the football world that they are who many of us in the preseason thought they would be. Now that the end of regular season is almost here, the Bengals are preparing for a postseason run by flexing their muscles against teams they have to beat. Following last week's seven-point win on the road at San Diego, this weekend's dismantling of a division leader proves that they ought to be taken seriously during the postseason. One good thing Cincinnati has going for it in January is that it won't have to travel to Houston. The Texans, who own first-round wins over the Bengals the past two years, have been mathematically eliminated from the postseason.

Stock watch: Andy Dalton -- rising. The Bengals quarterback turned in his best performance since Halloween, when he threw for 338 yards in an overtime loss at Miami. While he didn't break the 300-yard mark Sunday, Dalton's 275 still were the most he has thrown since the Dolphins game. He also didn't throw an interception, marking the first time in six games that he hasn't been picked off. This was only the third game all season that he had without throwing an interception. Dalton also looked sharp. Often during the game, he put passes precisely where they needed to be. He zipped the ball into soft zones in coverage that were caught and led receivers just far enough on others. Marvin Jones' diving first-half touchdown reception was the product of being led to just right spot by Dalton.

Balanced attack: The Bengals picked up where they left off against the Chargers and showcased another balanced offensive attack. For the second straight game and fourth time this year, they had more than 150 yards rushing as a team. They totaled 155 thanks to rookie Giovani Bernard's 99 yards -- averaging 8.2 per carry. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 48. Coupled with the passing game, the ground attack made for a wide-open offensive scheme. The Bengals are now 9-1 in games when their running backs have hit the 150-yard rushing plateau.

What's next? Cincinnati heads to Pittsburgh on Sunday night for a key AFC North contest against the Steelers. It is the second of the two annual meetings between the division foes. The Bengals won the first contest 20-10 in a "Monday Night Football" game at Paul Brown Stadium. With a win over the Steelers, Cincinnati could clinch the division title outright.
CINCINNATI -- When receiver Marvin Jones set a Cincinnati Bengals franchise record with his four touchdown receptions against the New York Jets five Sundays ago, his name was expected to start coming up more often in the defensive meeting rooms of opposing teams.

After all, prior to that game, he had been a mere piece of the Bengals' offense. Few outside Paul Brown Stadium had reason to believe back then that any Bengals receiver not named A.J. Green could have an impressive single-game performance.

When it came to its receivers, Cincinnati had, for the past two seasons at least, appeared committed to getting the ball first and foremost into the hands of its top playmaker and 2011 first-round draft pick. Any catches by other receivers were just bonuses. That particular Sunday, though, the diversity and versatility of the Bengals' offense showed itself in earnest. Jones was quarterback Andy Dalton's leading target, playing a major role in a big midseason victory.

Since then, he has been comparatively forgotten.

"I did a good job of taking advantage of opportunities [before]," Jones said. "The last two games were what they were."

Following his breakout eight-catch, four-touchdown performance against the Jets four games ago, Jones has just six receptions and hasn't been in the end zone. Against Baltimore and Cleveland, he was held to just two catches for 11 yards despite being targeted seven times total. His performances in those contests are what have him looking to be a bigger piece of the offense again.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Jones
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesMarvin Jones has been relatively quiet since his four-touchdown game last month against the Jets.
"I'm ready to start it off again," Jones said, adding that he's put his past two games well behind him.

Cincinnati travels to San Diego this weekend for a key AFC clash against the 5-6 Chargers. Last Sunday, the Chargers knocked off nine-win Kansas City, thanks to their own prolific passing attack. In this pseudo-homecoming, Jones, a Southern California native from the Los Angeles suburb Fontana, wants to make sure that he gets his hands on a pass early in order to keep catching others.

"I'm the type that wants to get into it early. Get the ball in my hands as early as possible," he said. "We have a lot of playmakers, so if it's their day, so be it. That's the beauty of our team and offense. If someone takes away a certain part, there's always someone that is going to produce. But it's good to get all of us in a rhythm early."

Two weeks ago, it was running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Jermaine Gresham who became the top passing options in the 41-20 win over the Browns. Windy and rainy conditions, along with a big halftime lead, forced the Bengals to mostly scrap their deep passing game. The combination meant Jones wasn't expecting a productive day.

Shorter passes and one gadget play were among the 14 completed passes the Bengals had. Bernard caught four for 41 yards and Gresham caught two for 27 yards and a touchdown. Bernard's biggest gain, a 25-yard snag along the Browns' sideline, came from receiver Mohamed Sanu, who had the ball as the result of a lateral from Dalton. The 93-yard passing performance Dalton had, combined with Sanu's 25 yards meant Cincinnati was held to less than 120 yards passing for the first time since Week 15 last season.

One week before the defense- and special-teams-inspired win over the Browns, Green was the receiving star in Cincinnati's 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore. He had eight catches for 151 yards and a touchdown, marking the fifth straight game he had more than 100 yards receiving. Green followed up that performance with two catches for just 7 yards against Cleveland.

"I like the diversity. I like keeping people fresh," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said of his multi-playmaker system. "If you have a number of guys that can help you, then we should never have a guy say he's tired. So we can sub guys in and out and guys can be fresh and playing fast."

When it specifically comes to Jones, Gruden said nothing has changed about the receiver's play the past three games. Because of the multiplicity of the offense, the ball just hasn't been going his way.

"He's had great practices up to the games," Gruden said. "Just sometimes, in the course of the game, some people will get shut out, so to speak, not because of their lack of playing good. It's just maybe the ball's not getting there. We like where Marvin's at. He's a solid No. 2 for us right now; him and Mo both.

"We're happy with where Marv's progress is and we think he's going to have a huge last five games of the year."

Asked if teams are playing him a little differently since his emergence, Jones admitted that the coverage may be a little tighter and a little better overall, but those changes aren't very drastic. Gruden agreed.

"The good thing is if they have a marquee corner like [Cleveland's] Joe Haden, [Jones] is usually going to get the second one," Gruden said. "So he should have a matchup that we feel good about every week. … We really feel like Marvin can go up against anybody and have a good day."

Maybe that day will be Sunday. If not, the Bengals are sure they can snap out of their recent offensive funk by turning to any one of their other playmakers.


W2W4: Bengals at Ravens

November, 9, 2013
During his post-practice session with reporters following Friday afternoon's workout, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis quickly rehashed his team's top priorities.

First and foremost, the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator said, his team wants to win all of its home games and claim as many division victories as it possibly can.

So far, so good at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are a perfect 4-0 there. When it comes to games in the division, though, the results have so far been mixed. Through two games, the Bengals have a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a road loss at Cleveland. This Sunday, they hope to get beyond .500 in AFC North games when they travel to Baltimore for a key conference clash against the defending Super Bowl champion.

A win this week could provide some momentum going into next week when the Browns come to Cincinnati for their second meeting of the season with the Bengals. Take these next two games, and the Bengals could find themselves resting at home the first week of the postseason before hosting a divisional round.

Again, the key word there is "could." There's a lot of the season left to go before we can start predicting exactly how the Bengals' postseason will shake out.

For now, all they can do is hope to win the games that are before them, starting with Sunday.

While you take the next few hours to get ready for the early-afternoon ballgame, here are four items you'll want to be sure to watch for:

1. Red zone warriors. One of the areas in which the Bengals struggled last week at Miami was in the red zone. They were 1-for-3 in converting those opportunities into points. Specifically, though, it was a second-quarter interception thrown near goal-line territory that hurt them the most. With the ball at the opposing 10-yard line, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a ball too far inside on an out route by receiver Marvin Jones. Dalton said the ball slipped. When it did, it flew into a zone that Miami cornerback Brent Grimes could snatch the ball from Jones and race untouched for an interception return for a touchdown. This week, Cincinnati can not have miscues inside the red zone or near goal-line territory. The Ravens rank as the NFL's second-best defense both in the red zone (31.8 percent conversion rating) and on goal-to-go situations (44.4 percent conversion rating).

2. Marvin's the best. Although Jones wasn't able to catch one particularly crucial pass last Thursday night, he has been catching just about everything else. The game before, on eight targets, he caught eight passes. Four of them resulted in touchdowns, pushing him toward a franchise record in receiving scores. As a matter of fact, Jones has been the league's best scorer this season when it comes to catching passes that have targeted him. Of the 41 balls Jones has been thrown this season, seven have resulted in touchdowns. That 17.1 percent clip is the highest target-to-turnover ratio in the NFL for any player with a minimum 40 targets. Denver's Julius Thomas ranks second, converting 15.7 of his targets into touchdowns. If Cincinnati wants to score, it won't shy away from him. If anything, it'll keep going to him.

3. Rotating the front. Keep an eye on exactly how the Bengals rotate their front four Sunday, as they move on without Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins. After Atkins tore his right ACL in last week's loss, the Bengals have been forced to get a little creative this week with how they play on the defensive line. Second-year player Brandon Thompson will most specifically take Atkins' place, fielding the majority of the snaps at that pass-rush interior position. In an effort to provide for a rotation and to keep Thompson fresh, look for the Bengals to mix in packages that include defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt on the inside, as well. Also, don't be surprised if newly acquired Kheeston Randall gets in on a series or two. The changes could even affect the linebacker group as perhaps outside linebacker James Harrison shifts down a little closer to the defensive line to provide more stability, security and size along the thin front.

4. Air attacks coming? Neither rushing offense has been overly impressive this season, so don't expect either team to live or die with the run. That said, though, Baltimore still will be committed to trying to establish the run early as it hopes that fifth-year running back Ray Rice has finally shaken whatever demons have haunted his backfield all season. On 97 carries, he has just 259 yards rushing this season. As a team, the Ravens are averaging 2.78 yards per carry. If they stay at that number for the rest of the year, they will set a league record for the lowest yards per carry in a season since the 1970 league merger. For that reason, ultimately look for Joe Flacco to take to the air for Baltimore. Dalton likewise will be trying to establish a passing game as he attempts to prove doubters wrong once again, and possibly post his fifth consecutive 300-yard passing day.

Bengals offense looks to shoulder load

November, 8, 2013
CINCINNATI -- When most reflect on the Cincinnati Bengals' season and think back to the end-of-game heroics that won nearly all of the six contests the AFC North leaders currently claim as wins, their thoughts first settle on the team's defense and special-teams units.

After all, it was cornerback Terence Newman's fumble recovery for a touchdown and defensive end Michael Johnson's fourth-down pass deflection that effectively sealed a 34-30 win over the Green Bay Packers in the third game of the year. In the Bengals' next home game, a contest against the New England Patriots, the entire defensive unit kept Tom Brady out of the end zone for the first time in 53 games, and clinched a key 13-6 win on cornerback Adam Jones' game-sealing interception in a driving rainstorm.

In two other games, Cincinnati's punter and return specialist factored in a pair of walk-off wins that came when kicker Mike Nugent drove through a pair of game-winning field goals. One came at the end of regulation, the other in overtime.

[+] EnlargeAJ Green
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Bengals know that star WR A.J. Green must shine the rest of the season with numerous injuries to the team's defense.
Only twice has the Bengals' offense seemed to dominate the headlines after wins this season. That's going to have to change.

With a defense now decimated by injury, the Bengals' offensive players feel a little added pressure this week as they head to Baltimore for a key division contest against the Ravens.

"Yeah, we've got to do a little bit more," receiver A.J. Green said. "They had our back for a couple of games now and we've got to step it up a little bit."

Although drops -- five, to be exact -- have been issues for Green at times this year, he still enters the weekend leading the league in receiving yards with 862. That's 21 more yards than Detroit's Calvin Johnson, who has appeared in two fewer games than Green because of an injury and also because of having to go through the Lions' bye week.

Green's sentiments are shared by others.

"It's been a defense has been our big brother kind of thing," running back Giovani Bernard said. "We have to step up. We've been able to do that a couple of times here and there, but our biggest thing is just being consistent with it and limiting turnovers."

Cincinnati's new-found offensive urgency emerged late last week when defensive tackle Geno Atkins became sidelined for the season with a torn ACL. His injury marked the fourth time this season that a key player on that side of the ball was lost for the year with an injury. Cornerback Leon Hall, defensive back Taylor Mays and defensive end Robert Geathers have also suffered season-ending injuries this year. Four others were lost in the preseason, placed on the yearlong injured reserve.

As the Bengals' defense goes into yet another game having to make tweaks and changes, this time, their teammates on the offensive side of the ball realize they have to help out.

"Our defense has been there for us for like, forever," receiver Marvin Jones said. "We're still confident in their ability and what they can do in stopping offenses, but we have to do our part to keep it going and to keep points on the board."

One way the Bengals can put points on the board is to avoid hurting themselves in the red zone. Once last week, on a pass to Jones, quarterback Andy Dalton left the ball too far inside, allowing a Dolphins cornerback to snatch the ball from Jones and sprint away for a pick-six. What was once a possible Bengals touchdown turned into a Dolphins score. By the end of the night, that play would have a major impact on the outcome of the game. Cincinnati lost 22-20 in overtime.

"Every time we start to turn the ball over a lot in a game, that's usually when we lose," Bernard said. "For us, it's just eliminating the turnovers and playing smart on offense. ... We just have to be smart with the ball when we have it. Whether that's running the ball, passing the ball, carrying the ball."

In last week's loss, the Bengals had three passes intercepted and dropped another five. It was the first time they had that many drops since 2007.