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CINCINNATI (AP) — There's no scrambling away from it. The Bengals' chances of finally making a deep playoff run rest largely with Andy Dalton, who has been streaky this season and awful in the past two postseasons.
The third-year quarterback set club records for touchdown passes and yards passing this season, leading Cincinnati (11-5) to the playoffs for an unprecedented third season in a row. He got a lot of the credit for helping the Bengals finish in the top 10 in offense.
Everyone knows the team records will be greatly diminished if he has another bad showing on Sunday against San Diego (9-7). He'll be in the spotlight more than anyone else at Paul Brown Stadium.
With so much on the line, will it be good Andy? Or the other Andy?
"People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven't won a playoff game," Dalton said this week. "You've got to win. That's what it comes down to. And for us to get where we want to go, we need to win. That's the way it works.
"For me, we need to get a win in this one. There's always going to be something that's going to be (considered) wrong, but to get a win would be big."
The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the seventh-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. Dalton has had two chances to break the streak, but instead played a big role in extending it.
He has played two of his worst games in the playoffs. The Bengals lost at Houston in the first round each of the last two seasons, with Dalton getting six sacks, four interceptions and no touchdowns. His playoff passer rating is 42.8.
During a 19-13 loss in Houston last season, Dalton was only 4 of 10 for 3 yards in the first half. He finished 14 of 30 for 127 yards with one interception and two sacks.
That game concluded with a moment that still hangs over Dalton and the Bengals. On a third-and-11 play from the Houston 36-yard line, A.J. Green got behind the coverage and Dalton overthrew him in the end zone with 2:57 to go.
If Dalton is on target, the Bengals likely win and the streak is broken.
"That's a great example of us not hitting the play that could have won the game for us — a defining moment," Dalton said. "We're in a lot better position this year than we were last year. We're ready to go."
Is he really? Given the way he's played this season, that's still an open question.
Dalton set a club record by throwing 11 touchdown passes during a three-game span this season. He followed that by throwing eight interceptions in the next three games.
In the final regular-season game on Sunday, he threw two touchdown passes and four interceptions during a 34-17 win over the Ravens. It was a little bit of everything.
"I think Andy did some poor things, but overall he made some plays that were really impressive," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "If we had 75 plays of offense, I'd say on 65 of them he was damn good and some of them were questionable."
Dalton has a few things going for him this time.
The Bengals are at home, where they're 8-0. Dalton has a lot more weapons with receiver Marvin Jones, rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and rookie running back Giovani Bernard emerging. And Cincinnati's defense is adept at erasing his mistakes, forcing teams to settle for field goals or nothing after a turnover.
Baltimore managed only three field goals off Dalton's first three interceptions on Sunday. During a 34-30 win over the Packers on Sept. 22, the Bengals had four turnovers and the defense forced four turnovers to make up for it.
"(Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer) says get ready for sudden changes," Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. "It's part of our practice and Zim's coaching. You've got to be ready to go out and stop them. It's a quick turnaround and I think we're doing a good job at it."
Since the last time the Bengals won a playoff game, t15 different quarterbacks have started for them — Boomer Esiason, Donald Hollas, Erik Wilhelm, David Klingler, Jay Schroeder, Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Paul Justin, Akili Smith, Scott Mitchell, Jon Kitna, Gus Frerotte, Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Dalton. They think they've got enough talent this time — on defense and offense — to make it work in the playoffs.
"I don't think anybody on this team is going to go in and say, 'Well, I played great in the playoffs, it's just Andy's fault,'" Gruden said. "It's a total team game. We'll have to play better and I think we're in a state of mind right now that we're pretty confident to do that."
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