Andy Dalton led the Cincinnati Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two seasons. That qualifies as an accomplishment in Cincinnati, which had only two postseason berths in the 20 seasons before Dalton’s arrival as a second-round pick.
But the former TCU star and his teammates want more this season after losses in Houston in the wild-card round each of the past two years.
“The first goal every year is to win your division,” Dalton said in a phone interview. “We’ve made the playoffs the last couple of years as a wild-card seed, so we really have had the mindset of going out and winning the division this year.”
The Bengals hold a two-game lead over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. A home playoff game comes with a division title, and the Bengals sport a 5-0 record at Paul Brown Stadium this season.
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“That’s obviously an advantage for us, getting to play at home,” Dalton said. “It just helps with everything.”
The Bengals’ last playoff victory came in 1990 over the Houston Oilers. They lost to the Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round the next week.
“We’ve done some really good things this year and put ourselves in a good position,” Dalton said. “We’re in control of the division, and we kind of control our own destiny from here on out. That’s how you want it. We’ve just got to keep up what we’ve been doing, which is playing like we have been.”
The Bengals have gone as their quarterback has.
Dalton was at his best during the team’s four-game winning streak in October. He completed 89 of 131 passes for 1,246 yards with 11 touchdowns, only three interceptions and a 116.8 passer rating in victories over the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions and New York Jets. It won him AFC Offensive Player of the Month.
It is the kind of play that Dalton expects out of himself.
“I expect to play well,” Dalton said. “I had a really good stretch there, where I was doing a lot of good things that were helping the team win. I’ve just got to keep it up, keep trusting my abilities, keep playing with the confidence that I have, and good things are going to happen for us.”
One of the weaknesses in Dalton’s game has been his lack of success in the vertical passing game despite the presence of receiver A.J. Green. It is a work in progress. Dalton is only 12 of 42 for 543 yards with four touchdowns and one interception on passes that travel more than 20 yards in the air.
In last week’s 17-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, 15 of Dalton’s 23 attempts were less than 10 yards through the air. He was 3 for 7 for 99 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“There’s been a big focus on some of the deeper throws and things like that,” Dalton said. “I’ve worked on my pocket movement. I feel like I’ve improved in those areas. I think every year you’re going to find things that you want to improve on. I feel like I’ve gotten better, and that’s what I want: I want to keep improving the rest of my career.”
With 3,144 passing yards and 22 touchdowns, Dalton is on pace for career bests. He has had four 300-yard games. But he already has tied last year’s interception total with 16. Six came in back-to-back losses to the Miami Dolphins and the Ravens, with Dalton being intercepted three times in each game.
“I just try to improve each week, try to see more, try to do more,” Dalton, 26, said. “There are things that I’ve done really well, things that I’ve done a lot better than in years past. I’ve just got to try to improve each week.”
Tucker is hot
Justin Tucker has made 27 consecutive field goals. It is the longest active streak in the NFL and second longest in Ravens team history.
Tucker has not missed since Sept. 15 against the Cleveland Browns.
Streak? What streak?
“The fact of the matter is I really could[n’t] care less one way or the other about that particular number,” Tucker said in a phone interview. “Like I’ve said before, the only numbers I really care about are wins vs. losses and just doing my part along the way in whatever way I can.”
The former University of Texas star, who broke the Texas A&M Aggies’ hearts in 2011 with a last-play field goal in the last game of the rivalry, has done his part.
Tucker had four field goals in a 19-3 victory over the Jets on Nov. 24, and then hit a franchise-record five field goals four days later on Thanksgiving in a 22-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I just take every opportunity for what it’s worth, and try to take everything one kick at a time and enjoy the journey,” Tucker said.
The only other time he had five field goals came in his junior season at UT when he tied the school record against Baylor. But he was only 5 for 6 in that 30-22 loss to BU in 2010, missing a 21-yarder.
“I was pretty ticked off that I left one out there,” Tucker said.
Tucker has scored 29 of the Ravens’ last 41 points. For the season, he ranks third in the NFL with 109 points, trailing leader Stephen Gostkowski by only nine points.
ESPN called Tucker the Ravens’ MVP.
“Again, I’m not interested in any of that,” Tucker said. “Sure, that’s nice of them to say, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to win games. Nobody cares if you’re the MVP of a team that doesn’t make the playoffs. Frankly, I don’t care about that. I just want to win.”
Tucker has hit 59 of 64 attempts in his two NFL seasons, perfect from inside 40 yards and 8 of 9 from 50 and beyond. He has a Super Bowl ring to show for it, too.
“Very few people have a chance to even be in that position,” he said. “At the same time, I woke up the next morning thinking, I’d really like to do that again, and I’d like to do it real soon, too.”