Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton entered the bye week on the worst three-game skid of his career. How he emerges from it will be key to how the team plays in December.
“I think the bye week came at a good time where we can look at what we’ve done so far and where we can improve and what we’ve been doing well so we can keep trying to do those things,” Dalton said. “I did take some time and look at that kind of stuff.”
With five games to play, the Bengals have a seemingly comfortable two-game lead in the AFC North Division. But if Dalton continues to play the way he did in the three games lead up to the bye — averaging 235 yards per game while completing 52.6 percent of his passes and throwing eight interceptions — Cincinnati could be in for a fight just to make the postseason.
“Turnovers are a concern,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “They cost us big time against Miami, they cost us against Baltimore and could’ve cost us dearly against Cleveland. I don’t know many teams that are going to win games if you’re losing the turnover margin. That’s something we definitely have to address and take care of the ball a little bit better.”
Dalton had never thrown multiple interceptions in three successive games before being picked off three times in a 22-20 loss at Miami, three times in a 20-17 loss at Baltimore and twice more in a 41-20 home win against Cleveland.
That upped his season total to 15, which is one shy of tying the career high he set last year. Dalton is on pace to finish the regular season with 22 interceptions, which would tie the franchise record shared by Jon Kitna (2001), Boomer Esiason (1990) and Ken Anderson (1978).
“If you’re going to play quarterback, you’re going to throw an interception from time to time,” Gruden said. “You can’t dwell on it, you’ve got to move on and figure out a way to win the game. Luckily our defense and special teams had a hell of an outing (against Cleveland) and gave us a huge lead and it didn’t become a factor. But obviously eight interceptions in three weeks is too many.”
Two of the eight were returned for touchdowns, and another gave the Ravens the ball at the Cincinnati 11.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve been behind the chains, had third-and-long situations, which make it tough,” Dalton said. “So if we can get these third downs shorter going in, I think it will help keep drives alive, keep finding completions and keep the chains moving.”
The timing couldn’t be better for Dalton to rediscover the formula that led him to being named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October when he threw 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. With Sunday’s game being in San Diego, weather shouldn’t be an issue. And the Chargers rank 27th out of 32 NFL teams in pass defense, allowing 276 yards per game.
Plus two of the final four games are against teams who rank in the bottom half of the league in pass defense in Indianapolis (19th) and Minnesota (29th).
The Bengals also have the experience of last December to lean on, when Dalton was sharp and led them to a 4-1 record down the stretch to work their way into a wild card berth.
“I think we kind of see how we finished last year,” Dalton said. “We had a big stretch and won games that got us into the playoffs. So for us, we’re in control of everything right now. So this is a big five games for us. It’s a big point in the season because this is when you want to be playing your best.
“It’s make-or-break time for a lot of teams and what’s going to happen going into the playoffs,” Dalton added. “For us, that’s our goal. Our goal is to win all five of these.”
Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) at San Diego Chargers (5-6), 4:25 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 7, 12, 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM