AFC North: Ryan Plackemeier
"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 top stories Monday in the AFC North:
- Vinny Iyer of the Sporting News repeats what I've been saying since last year: The league's best rivalry right now is the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Baltimore Ravens.
Morning take: Whether it's talent, hatred or playing in meaningful games, this rivalry has it all. The only thing these two teams lack is longevity.
- According to Kevin Eck of the Baltimore Sun, former Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller -- now with the Saint Louis Rams -- returned to his old stomping grounds this weekend for the Preakness.
Morning take: Boller took a beating early in his career and never rebounded in Baltimore. But I'm curious to see how his new gig in St. Louis turns out.
- Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository wonders if prior experience will help Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini.
Morning take: It can't hurt. Since 1999, the Browns hired three rookie head coaches with little success. Now it's time to see if the experienced route pays dividends.
- Michael Lombardi of the National Football Post believes Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber can make an immediate impact.
Morning take: The Bengals swiftly cut Kyle Larson and Ryan Plackemeier after drafting Huber in the fifth round. That says a lot about the confidence Cincinnati has in the rookie this year.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|Rex Brown/Getty Images|
|How will Braylon Edwards respond to returning to Cleveland?|
Here are some post-draft notes and observations from within the division:
- The Cleveland Browns potentially have a situation on their hands with a returning Braylon Edwards. The former Pro Bowl receiver was reportedly included in heavy trade talks with the New York Giants. Eventually, talks broke down and nothing occurred this weekend. Now the Browns have to tread carefully to make sure Edwards feels wanted again. For the record it is unknown if Edwards is upset about the talks, and it's doubtful this would be a Jay Cutler-type situation. But it could require a little ego stroking for everyone to move on for the 2009 season.
- One of the most compelling competitions I'm looking forward to this summer will be in Baltimore. A rookie first-round pick (Michael Oher) will battle a grizzled veteran (Willie Anderson) for the Ravens' right-tackle spot. Baltimore got solid value in Oher at No. 23 and he should man the position for a long time. But Anderson had a decent season there as well and wants to hold the spot for at least one more year, setting up an intriguing position battle in training camp.
- Speaking of competition, there is officially a logjam at punter for the Cincinnati Bengals. The team drafted rookie punter Kevin Huber in the sixth round to go with free-agent signee Ryan Plackemeier and last year's punter Kyle Larson. This either means there will be a three-way competition for the job this summer or one of these players will soon be released. Stay tuned.
- Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Max Starks is one of the most important players on Pittsburgh's roster right now, but it's not for reasons you'd expect. Cornerback Ike Taylor and receiver Hines Ward recently re-worked their contracts to free up cap space before the NFL draft. But Starks' $8.451 million salary for 2009, courtesy of the franchise tag, also is taking up significant space at the moment. It was expected that Pittsburgh would work out an extension with Starks, but to date that hasn't happened. With Pittsburgh bringing in nine draft picks over the weekend, the team will need to begin cutting players or reach a long-term extension with Starks to get everyone under contract. An educated guess is the Steelers would prefer the latter.