CINCINNATI (AP) — When Andy Dalton was introduced before the All-Star celebrity softball game at Great American Ball Park in July, many fans booed.
He got them cheering when he hit a long home run, then flipped his bat away.
So began Dalton's year of winning 'em over.
The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback is playing like one of the NFL's elites in his fifth season, giving hints that he's ready to take the Bengals (3-0) deeper into the playoffs. He twice rallied the Bengals in the fourth quarter of a 28-24 win in Baltimore on Sunday.
So far, everyone's seeing a different Dalton.
"If he can keep doing what he's doing, great things are going to happen for us," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.
The Bengals are one of only three unbeaten teams in the AFC heading into their home game Sunday against Kansas City (1-2), and Dalton is one of the biggest reasons.
His 121 QB rating ranks second in the NFL to the Packers' Aaron Rodgers — yep, he's even ahead of Patriots star Tom Brady. In the fourth quarter, he's been sensational with a passer rating of 147.5.
For years, the Bengals have tried to strengthen the running game and the defense to take some of the load off Dalton, who was seen as more of an orchestrator than a star. The difference between Dalton and the elites usually showed during the playoffs, where he's 0-4.
During one first-round loss in Houston, Dalton overthrew an open A.J. Green in the end zone during the closing minutes. He rarely made the type of improvisational play that decides a game or put together an impressive drive.
In Baltimore on Sunday, he did it twice. After he was sacked and lost a fumble that the Ravens returned for a touchdown and their first lead, Dalton went to the sideline and reassured Jackson that everything would be just fine.
"What he said to me was: 'Coach, let's just call our offense. There's no panic here. So let's just get some good plays,'" Jackson said. "But he says, 'But if you want to get it all back, then we can do that.' Again, he knows.
"He was laughing. There were jokes going on out there between me and him sometimes. That's how comfortable this has become, and that's what you want."
On the first play after the fumble, Dalton stood in the pocket against a fierce rush and hit Green in stride for an 80-yard touchdown. After the Ravens rallied to take the lead again, Dalton led an 80-yard drive that culminated in his 7-yard TD pass to Green with 2:10 left.
When Dalton got to the line for the winning 7-yard pass, he smiled, changed the play and got the one-on-one matchup with Green that he wanted.
"I didn't realize I was smiling but I mean, it's one of those things," Dalton said. "You get those opportunities, you've got to make that play. And we were able to make it. I was smiling for a while after that."
The two clutch drives — Dalton was 5 of 6 for 166 yards — got his teammates' attention.
"When you're in the huddle and you're faced with adversity, it does bring a great deal of confidence," receiver Marvin Jones said. "He's done it before, we've done it before. Yeah, it's great. This is a great thing to be part of."
Part of Dalton's early success — eight touchdowns, one interception — is his growing comfort in the offense. Also, he spent a lot of time in the offseason working on his throwing and has been very accurate so far, completing 66 percent.
"I feel my arm's gotten stronger, I've been more accurate with it, and I've just got to keep that going," Dalton said.
It'll come down to whether he gets the Bengals to the playoffs for a fifth straight season and then plays well enough to win. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of futility in league history.
"He's taken himself to another level and I think the real great players in this league, that's what they do," Jackson said. "Not that he deserves that kind of praise yet. We've got a lot of games to win in order for him to reach that."