AFC North: Mike Vrabel
"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.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:
- Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to compete for a starting job.
Morning take: With this domino falling, expect the Steelers to strike a deal with veteran quarterback Charlie Batch very soon to become Ben Roethlisberger's backup in 2009.
- The Kansas City Chiefs signed veteran linebacker Zach Thomas to a one-year contract this weekend.
Morning take: Why is this important to the AFC North? With starting linebackers Thomas, Mike Vrabel and Derrick Johnson in Kansas City, it is now possible for Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry to fall to the Cleveland Browns with the fifth overall pick.
- Will the Cincinnati Bengals trade receiver Chad Ocho Cinco?
Morning take: The feeling I gather is the player wants out and the team does not want to comply -- unless it's at the right price. Coming off a down year, the "right price" for Cincinnati doesn't seem attainable.
- New St. Louis Rams quarterback Kyle Boller says he has few regrets from his time with the Baltimore Ravens.
Morning take: Boller took a pounding early in his career and never recovered with the Ravens. It will be interesting to see if he can take advantage of a fresh start.
|James Lang/US Presswire||Kevin Terrell/Getty Images|
It's no surprise that a pair of middle linebackers topped ESPN.com's survey of NFL head coaches for smartest defensive player. With six votes, Zach Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys edged the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis (four votes).
Middle linebackers are often the quarterbacks of a defense. They usually take care of the play-calling responsibilities and are required to know the assignments of teammates. Add in exceptional instincts, ability and countless hours of film study and there's the rare mix you get with Thomas and Lewis.
Three safeties -- Ed Reed, John Lynch and Corey Chavous -- also were in the top five. That position is the last line of defense and usually reserved for some of the smartest players on the team as well.
In addition, there were five votes for defensive linemen and one for a cornerback. Those positions normally rely on beating your opponent with brute strength for linemen, or tremendous athleticism as a cornerback. But the players at those positions on this list are extremely savvy and bring the complete package.
Thirty of 32 NFL head coaches answered the question. Here are the results:
|1.||Zach Thomas||LB||Dallas Cowboys||6|
|2.||Ray Lewis||LB||Baltimore Ravens||4|
|3. (tie)||John Lynch||S||Denver Broncos||3|
|3. (tie)||Ed Reed||S||Baltimore Ravens||3|
|5. (tie)||Corey Chavous||S||St. Louis Rams||2|
|5. (tie)||Warren Sapp||DT||Retired||2|
|5. (tie)||Michael Strahan||DE||Retired||2|
|8. (tie)||Ronde Barber||CB||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1|
|8. (tie)||Derrick Brooks||LB||Tampa Bay Buccanners||1|
|8. (tie)||Nick Greisen||LB||Baltimore Ravens||1|
|8. (tie)||Rodney Harrison||S||New England Patriots||1|
|8. (tie)||Antonio Pierce||LB||New York Giants||1|
|8. (tie)||Brian Russell||S||Seattle Seahawks||1|
|8. (tie)||Jason Taylor||DE||Miami Dolphins||1|
|8. (tie)||Mike Vrabel||LB||New England Patriots||1|