AFC North: Tyler Palko
"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.
All three teams won by a combined 17 points and all won in the fourth quarter. The Ravens continued to finish games strong at home, outscoring the 49ers 10-0 in the fourth to break a 6-6 tie. The Steelers won their second straight game by their defense forcing a turnover late in the fourth quarter. And the Bengals won for the fifth time this season after trailing in the fourth.
By the top three teams in the division winning, this shows there's going to be little margin of error for the Ravens (8-3), Steelers (8-3) and Bengals (7-4) to capture the AFC North title. With five weeks remaining, it's looking like a team is going to have to win at least 12 games to win the division this year.
Close races have defined the AFC North the previous four seasons. In 2010, the Steelers and the Ravens both finished 12-4 but Pittsburgh won the tiebreaker with a better win percentage in division games. In 2009, Cincinnati earned the division title by going 10-6, which was one game better than both Baltimore and Pittsburgh (the Bengals also held the tiebreaker by sweeping the division). In 2008, the Steelers took the AFC North with a 12-4 record, one game ahead of Baltimore. And in 2007, the Steelers and Browns finished 10-6, but Pittsburgh took the title because it swept Cleveland.
This is what we learned from the AFC North teams this past week: The Ravens still play their best against the best (in beating the team with the second-best record in the NFL). The Steelers can still win without being sharp on offense and being without two playmakers (Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley) on defense). The Bengals aren't going away after losing to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And the Browns aren't going to be December pushovers if they continue to fight like they did at Cincinnati.
Here is what the local columnists are saying:
BENGALS: Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green is making these game-breaking performances look easy, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty. "It's dismissive of his talent to suggest A.J. Green simply gallops under footballs the way Willie Mays chased flyballs," Daugherty wrote. "It doesn't account for Green's practice time, video room diligence or his abiding confidence. It's not exactly accurate either, to say that Red Dalton simply confers with Green in the huddle and says, 'Go long. I'll hit you.' But damned if it doesn't look that way."
BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto puts in perspective how another chance at victory slips through Cleveland's grasp. "The Browns need to win a game like this, against an AFC North opponent on the road," Pluto wrote. "They need it not only to show their fans that there is progress, but to convince themselves. Instead, their Pro Bowler snapper Ryan Pontibriand admits, 'I'm in a pretty tough slump.' It's the second time in the last three weeks that his bouncing snaps have led to bungled boots in key situations."
RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck says the lack of a running-game swagger will hurt the Ravens in the playoffs. "The decision to run outside right tackle against the quick 49ers defense left the Ravens with a third down at the five and Joe Flacco was tackled for no gain on an apparent quarterback draw to set up the chip shot field goal by Billy Cundiff," Schmuck wrote. "No big disaster. The three points still looked like a gift after the long penalty wiped out an interception, but the Ravens are likely to regret leaving four points on the field in that kind of situation in the postseason."
STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook thinks Tyler Palko's errors saved the Steelers. "For the Steelers, this was a good night for Palko's largesse," Cook wrote. "They easily could have lost without it and blown any chance of finishing ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the division. They played that poorly on offense and coached that poorly, period."
Thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 13-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs:
What it means: The Steelers survived a last-minute comeback by the Chiefs to improve to 8-3 and remain tied with the Ravens atop the AFC North (Baltimore holds the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh because it swept the Steelers). It wasn't an impressive win for the Steelers, which was held to 13 points, their worst output since the season opener in Baltimore. Pittsburgh looked rusty coming off its 10-day break but it's now 14-9 after byes.
Fourth-quarter stop: For its second straight game, Pittsburgh needed an interception late in the fourth quarter to seal the win. This time it was Keenan Lewis who caught an overthrown pass from an overmatched Tyler Palko. Before the turnover, the Chiefs were making the Steelers sweat, driving to the Pittsburgh 37 with with 38 seconds left.
Turnover time: The Steelers nearly matched their season total in turnovers in one game, thanks to the lapses by Palko. Pittsburgh finished with four takeaways (three interceptions and one fumble recovery) after entering this game with an NFL-low six in its first 10 games. The Steelers converted 10 points off turnovers.
Injury concern: Pittsburgh played most of the game without two Pro Bowl players. Safety Troy Polamalu left in the first quarter after taking a blow to the head, and center Maurkice Pouncey came out of the game with an illness in the second quarter. Both didn't return. Ryan Mundy, Polamalu's replacement, made an interception in the second quarter that led to the game's only touchdown.
Out of the zone: One reason why the game was so close was Pittsburgh's struggles in the red zone. The Steelers have scored one touchdown despite being inside the Chiefs' 10-yard line three times. On Pittsburgh's opening drive, Mike Wallace dropped a pass in the end zone and Mewelde Moore fumbled at the Kansas City 2.
Thumbs up or down?: In his first full game since fracturing his right thumb, Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 31 passes (67.7 percent), which was his fourth-highest completion rate this season. But he was held to a season-low 193 yards passing. He also had one touchdown and one interception.
What's next: The Steelers return home to play the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4).
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
CINCINNATI -- The quarterback who kept Joe Flacco off the field in college is not surprised his former backup and teammate developed into the first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
Former University of Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko, speaking after New Orleans' 13-0 victory over the Bengals Saturday, said his former backup always had potential. But in the time they spent together in Pittsburgh, Flacco simply lacked experience.
"He's a good quarterback," Palko said of Flacco. "He has a strong arm and we were battling when he was young. But he's progressed really well."
The irony is Palko went undrafted in 2007 and is currently battling for a roster spot in New Orleans. Flacco, meanwhile, is the franchise signal caller of the future in Baltimore.
Both went on to have good collegiate careers. Palko was a three-year starter for the Panthers, while Flacco had two great years after transferring to the University of Delaware.
The pair were "good friends" while at Pitt, according to Palko, but gradually lost touch after Flacco's transfer. Palko indicated Flacco grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to play for the Panthers and in the end made the right move.
"It's hard to say what he would've looked like at Pitt...but I couldn't be more happy for Joe and what happened," Palko said. "He transferred and became a first-round draft pick. So that was a good job on his part to overcome some obstacles and get to where he wants to be."