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Andy Dalton has Bengals looking like Super Bowl contenders

CINCINNATI -- Michael Bennett flashed into the Bengals' backfield, just as Andy Dalton was flipping the ball to Rex Burkhead on a carefully crafted jet-sweep, and suddenly it felt to all the football-watching world like the high-flying home team with the striped helmets had come crashing down to earth.

As Bennett dislodged the football, and Seattle Seahawks teammate Bobby Wagnerscooped it up and ran 23 yards for what appeared to be a dagger of a touchdown, 65,004 fans at Paul Brown Stadium watched helplessly, millions of television viewers nodded knowingly -- and one normally fiery offensive coordinator went into a perceptible funk.

Hue Jackson, the man who had called the ill-fated play, had his reasons: Cincinnati's offense was in the midst of a scoreless, seven-drive slump, and the Bengals had fallen into a 24-7 hole against the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks with 6:41 left in the third quarter. A team that had rolled to a 4-0 start was being dealt a dose of harsh reality; America had seen this movie before, and it wasn't pretty.

And at that miserable moment, in an authoritative show of defiance Jackson couldn't have imagined a year ago, his quarterback called BS on that narrative and blew up his pity party.

"Coach, there's a lot of time left," Dalton told Jackson on the Cincinnati sideline. "We've got this. We're fine. We're gonna win this game. Let's go."

As is becoming increasingly clear, the Bengals go as their quarterback goes -- and they went a long way toward legitimizing themselves as a bona-fide Super Bowl contender on Sunday. After Dalton directed scoring drives on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions, the last of which tied the game on the final play of regulation, the red-hot redhead fulfilled his prophecy in overtime, with Mike Nugent's 42-yard field goal giving Cincinnati a 27-24 victory that might have been the most impressive of his half-decade under center.

Midway through October, the Bengals have a two-and-a-half game lead over the second-place Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North -- and have a quarterback who seems poised to shed his stigma as a January flop artist.

First, however, Dalton is morphing into an unlikely extension of his edgy, extroverted offensive coordinator, in what is proving to be one of the more productive *Odd Couple* castings in recent NFL memory.

"I'm not for everybody, and everybody's not for me, but Andy and I have really clicked -- and I'm so proud of him," Jackson said Sunday night as he munched on chicken wings in the upstairs area of a restaurant in the shadow of the Bengals' stadium. "There's a different trust between us this year, and it's great to have a guy that can pick me up when I put us in a bad situation with what wasn't the best-designed play.

"When we were down, he didn't blink. Last year, in a situation like that, he might've gone the other way. Sometimes, he did. This year, he has a different look in his eye. He demonstrates that killer instinct, and it took a lot of growth, leadership and hard work to get himself to that point. Marvin (Lewis, the Bengals' head coach) has trusted me with Andy, and Andy has responded to our coaching. And now there's unflinching trust and unflinching will, and everyone around him is feeding off of it."

Dalton (30 of 44, 331 yards) served up some beautiful passes on Sunday, including a 72-yard strike to All-Pro receiver A.J. Green that appeared to give the Bengals a 14-7 lead with 5:26 left in the first quarter, but which was negated by a holding penalty on left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Dalton has been one of the league's top statistical performers through five games, with 11 touchdown passes against two interceptions, a 67.5 completion percentage and a 303.6 yards-per-game average.

Two weeks ago in Baltimore, Dalton led the Bengals on a dramatic, game-winning touchdown drive to pull out a 28-24 victory over the Ravens. On Sunday, he topped himself -- and when he and I spoke alone at his locker shortly before he headed to the parking lot nearly an hour after the game, the quarterback didn't shy away from the significance of what he and his teammates had just accomplished.

"Hey, this is a really good team," Dalton said of the Seahawks, who continued their early season struggles. "Yeah, they're 2-3, but it wouldn't surprise me if they end the year 13-3, because they're that good. That's why this win is so big -- because it wasn't against a team that we were supposed to beat, it was a team that's been where we're trying to go. That's huge. It gives us a lot of confidence, and confidence is contagious."

It doesn't take a cynic to note that, on some level, we've heard this refrain before. Dalton, since being selected in the second round of the 2011 draft and immediately inserted into the starting lineup as Carson Palmer's replacement, has shown a proclivity for regular-season success, only to faceplant come playoff time. Cincinnati is 0-4 in the postseason during that stretch, and Dalton has performed poorly on each occasion.

Last season, Jackson's first as the Bengals' offensive coordinator following the departure of Jay Gruden to Washington, ended with the Bengals getting thumped in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts. Dalton played that game without three injured teammates (Green, fellow wideout Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert) who are reliable targets, and reinserting them back into an offense that also includes talented receiver Mohamed Sanu and productive halfbacks Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard has allowed Jackson to showcase his skills as an innovative, aggressive play-caller.

And his quarterback, accordingly, is strutting around like a man who knows the offense he directs is a handful.

"When you have the weapons we have, on any given play anybody can get it -- and that makes Andy very confident," Jones said. "We know what we have in him, and he knows what he has in us, and everybody (on the outside is) starting to see what we already know."

Later, I asked veteran cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones -- whose deft 35-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter changed the game's momentum and launched Cincinnati's 20-point, game-closing run -- to describe Dalton's confidence level.

"What? He's swagged out," Jones said, flashing a huge smile. "He's got hella swag, baby."

Dalton's swag was on full display during Sunday's comeback. At one point early in the fourth quarter, Jackson sent the quarterback onto the field with a play call that mistakenly omitted the formation, provoking a salty glare.

"He gave me that snarl, that same look I give to him sometimes," Jackson recalled Sunday night. "I said, 'I like it when you give me that look,' and we both cracked up."

Said Green: "Andy was on the sidelines smiling and cutting jokes with Hue, and it's hard for the rest of us not to be relaxed when that happens. That's our quarterback; that's who we are. And it feels awesome."

Dalton boosted the Bengals' spirits by finding Eifert open in the middle of the end zone for the second time, cutting the Seattle lead to 24-14 early in the fourth quarter. He then launched a 71-yard drive that concluded with a conspicuous show of chutzpah: With less than four minutes remaining, the Bengals faced a second-and-goal from the 5, and Dalton approached the line looking to throw for the end zone. However, during the Bengals' Friday afternoon practice, Jackson had built in an option for Dalton to call his own number if the quarterback saw a certain look from the defense.

Sure enough, in a call that stunned not only the Seahawks' defenders but virtually everyone in the stadium, Dalton took a quick snap and slithered into the end zone for the score.

"A quarterback's got to have great moxie and rhythm to pull that off -- essentially, he's got to be an actor," Jackson said. "When we put it in, I'm sure everybody laughed and said, 'They won't do that.' Well, he did."

Dalton wasn't smiling after his second-quarter deep pass to Green was picked off at the Seattle 1-yard line by All-Pro safety Earl Thomas -- and, during what would have been a 68-yard return, the quarterback was speared in the back by Bennett, then thrown to the ground and roughed up by the defensive lineman. Bennett, who Jackson calls "maybe the toughest guy to defend I've ever had to coach against, pound for pound," picked up a personal foul on the play.

Later, Dalton took an even more hellacious shot from Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin, who collapsed the pocket on a third-and-4 snap with 24 seconds remaining and crushed him at the Seattle 13. Dalton, who felt the brunt of the blow in his ribs, had to suck it up and rush off the field in time for Nugent to force overtime with a 31-yard field goal, on a ball that was snapped with only three seconds to go.

That set the stage for the Bengals to win in overtime -- and for Jackson to raise a glass of cranberry juice and Sprite in his quarterback's honor several hours after the game.

"This one meant something," Jackson conceded as he finished his drink. "(Seahawks coach) Pete Carroll and I both went to (the University of the Pacific), so we've got a friendly rivalry, and I wanted to hold up my end. Hell, he's won a Super Bowl and almost won another, and for good reason. We're just trying to get better, and we're growing by leaps and bounds."

Given the growth displayed by Dalton and the rest of the Bengals' offense thus far, Jackson -- who was fired after a single 8-8 season as the Oakland Raiders' head coach four years ago -- is likely to be a hot candidate in the coming months. Next Sunday the Bengals will travel to Buffalo to face the Bills, a team which, according to a high-placed organizational source, was prepared to hire Jackson to fill its head-coaching vacancy last January before Rex Ryan made a successful run at the job.

Instead of looking forward to that matchup, Jackson chose to reflect on a conversation he'd had the previous day with a man even more instrumental in Dalton's development: Greg Dalton, Andy's father, who approached the offensive coordinator before the Bengals' walkthrough Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium.

"His dad came up to me and said, 'I want to thank you,' and I said, 'For what?'" Jackson recalled. "He said, 'I appreciate the way you've supported him. It's meant a lot.' I tend to ride these guys, and I don't get those type of comments (from parents) very often. I've coached Andy hard, but I do support him unconditionally, and he's worked his butt off to earn my trust. He's all in, and I'm in it with him. And I'm so excited to see where this can go."

On Sunday, when things looked bleak, Dalton went to another level -- and earned his stripes in a manner that might have constituted the most clutch effort of his career.

"I feel like I'm the best I've ever been," Dalton said shortly before heading to the parking lot. "And I need to keep getting better."

If Dalton can do that, this coming January might not be so bleak in Cincinnati -- and his and his team's stigma may soon be long gone.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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