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Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals appear poised to take next step

It's not that the Cincinnati Bengals beat the New York Jets. That was a conventional-wisdom pick. It's the fact that the Bengals bludgeoned Gang Green -- a team with a legit defense, fresh off a win over the New England Patriots -- by 40 points.

It's the fact that the Bengals won 49-9 in incredibly impressive and dominant fashion, showing off their amazing talent while simultaneously busting the Jets' will. This was a performance that got your attention, a performance that sent shock waves through the league and served notice that this team indeed can be that good.

It's the fact that Cincy is 6-2 at the midway point. And then there's the most important point of all ...

It's the fact that Andy Dalton has taken his play to another level this season.

Yes, as someone who didn't pick the talent-rich Bengals to make the playoffs in the preseason because of concerns about the head coach and quarterback, I must point out that Dalton is playing the best ball of his career.

One week after Dalton's 372-yard, three-touchdown effort in a road win over the Detroit Lions, the quarterback was brilliant against the Jets. Dalton sliced and diced the defense, throwing a career-high five touchdown passes against a unit that has flummoxed Tom Brady on multiple occasions this year. It was the kind of stretch that fuels faith in the hot-button quarterback -- and in the team he directs. If Dalton truly possesses the ability to take over games, the Bengals are poised to make a run in January. Dalton knows it.

Appearing on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," a few weeks ago, Dalton was very cognizant of what the critics have said, based on lackluster performances in the two playoff losses that ended his first two NFL seasons. After Sunday's statement win, Dalton told the assembled media: "This is where I want to be. This is how I want to be playing."

As I watched Sunday's bloodbath unfold, I kept thinking about the conversation I had Friday on SiriusXM Radio with the Bengals' fine offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden. An upbeat and honest Gruden expressed great pleasure over the budding confidence he has seen from his offense. It's easy to forget how young this group is, with Dalton and star receiver A.J. Green in just their third NFL seasons. Gruden gushed about how coachable the young players are and how encouraging it is to see other receivers developing around Green, specifically citing Marvin Jones.

Pretty prescient -- the second-year pro set a franchise record with four touchdown catches Sunday.

Now, the challenge for Dalton and the Bengals is to maintain their superiority while being the hunted and continue to improve as the second half of the season unfolds.

One of the knocks on Dalton is that he's inaccurate, especially on deep balls. I asked Gruden last week if this was a big deal or something more of a media creation. After I pressed the coach on the topic, he provided an answer that I loved.

"It's a big deal," the offensive coordinator admitted. But then he added an important distinction: "It's not so much the arm strength, it's how he throws it with his mechanics." Gruden said Dalton works incredibly hard at this, and the Bengals drill it in practice all the time. You saw the fruits of their labor Sunday, as Dalton and Green hooked up on a couple of pretty deep balls for big gains.

Dalton and Green are flanked by a strong offensive line, a diverse run game with the bruising BenJarvus Green-Ellis and electrifying rookie Giovani Bernard (who rightly drew major praise from Gruden in our conversation), two strong tight ends in veteran Jermaine Gresham and first-round draft pick Tyler Eifert, and the rapidly emerging Jones, who has scored in each of the past three weeks. If Dalton can continue to sling it, this offense will continue to get better.

That's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL, because you know the defense is elite. Mike Zimmer is one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, having finished three of the past four seasons with a unit ranked in the top seven in total defense. Geno Atkins is the league's best defensive tackle, leading an imposing front line that sets the tone for this nasty D. The linebacker corps is strong, and the defensive backfield just has a knack for making plays. Don't believe me? Ask Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who was on the wrong end of two pick-sixes Sunday, courtesy of Chris Crocker and Adam Jones.

As noted by Gruden, the Bengals are oozing with confidence. Heading into the second half of the season, Cincinnati's goal should be securing a first-round bye in the playoffs. That, of course, would be the easiest way to overcome the wild-card woes that have plagued this team in each of the past two seasons, with Dalton and Marvin Lewis fizzling through poor passes and poor game management, respectively.

This week, the Bengals visit the Miami Dolphins on NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football." While things are always tough for the road team on a short week, Atkins and Co. should pound the Dolphins' offensive line. And with remaining games against Baltimore (home and away), San Diego and Indianapolis, the Bengals certainly can't take their feet off the gas.

The past two weeks were eye-opening. Cincy currently looks like the best team in the AFC North -- and by a wide margin. However, the Bengals must prove it on the field. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens haven't played consistent ball, but their best stretch will come in the second half. Not coincidentally, this is where the Bengals will be judged. Can they deliver down the stretch? Can they log the franchise's first playoff win since the 1990 campaign?

With Lewis and Dalton, I'll need to see it before I believe it. But with Cincinnati in the midst of an impressive four-game winning streak and Dalton suddenly picking apart defenses like a bona fide franchise signal-caller, I'm closer to believing in this group than ever before.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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