I'm not going to brag. I'm not going to boast. I'm not going to point to my column last week, which explained why I absolutely knew the San Diego Chargers would beat the Bengals in Cincinnati during Sunday's AFC Wild Card Game, and say, "I told you so." I'm not going to ask for forgiveness from the Ohio residents who peppered me with -- as it turned out, wrongful -- criticism. I'm not going to ask for an apology from the analysts I work with who thought my take was off.
Actually, this was the rare moment when I was wishing my opinion would turn out to be incorrect.
Yes, Dalton deserves credit for the regular-season wins he's accumulated in his three-year career. But even in a campaign during which Dalton and Cincy flirted with greatness, you could see the quarterback at his worst, whether via the no-show in Pittsburgh in Week 15 or the bevy of picks he coughed up against Baltimore in Week 17, which flew under the radar only because the Ravens couldn't take advantage. And the inconsistencies that have plagued him in the regular season are especially glaring in the playoffs.
In the first half against San Diego, Dalton was solid. Then, as one NFL Pro Bowl player explained via text message on Sunday night, he "pulled an Andy Dalton." This is code for making bad decisions, inaccurate throws and game-changing picks. In the third quarter, Dalton completed zero of three passes, was sacked twice and gave up a gruesome-looking interception. In the fourth quarter -- just for good measure -- he added another mind-numbing pick.
Though Dalton has the kind of offensive talent around him that Tom Brady and Andrew Luck could only dream of, he led the Bengals' offense -- a unit that averaged 42 points per outing over its final five home games of the regular season -- to a paltry 10 points on Sunday. Cincinnati was 1-for-8 on third-down conversions in the second half, which shows a lack of clutch play.
"He has (Chad) Pennington's arm," one NFL general manager explained to me. "But Chad knew what he could do and what he couldn't do. And Chad was smart and made great decisions. Dalton doesn't do that."
On Sunday, my guys Jim Nantz and Phil Simms wondered aloud during the game broadcast why so many critics were stuck on the ongoing narrative that Dalton can't win in a big spot. This was an hour after they playfully picked on me on CBS Sports Network for predicting a San Diego win due to Dalton's shortcomings.
Count me as a hater -- a badge of honor I'll wear with pride. Even better, of course, you can count me as a realist. Dalton is now 0-3 in the playoffs in his three years as a pro, completing just 56.9 percent of his passes while averaging a skimpy 239 yards per game. He's thrown one playoff touchdown -- and given up six playoff picks. This cannot happen.
But these are stats. These are facts.
I asked another GM for a scouting report on Dalton and to explain why he struggles in big games. The response fascinated me.
"He's an average to below-average talent with poor arm strength and physical tools," the GM said. "He needs the team around him to be on target, and when they aren't, he just gets exposed. Dalton is another example of supply and demand. Here's the fact: There aren't many good quarterbacks out there. There's maybe seven or eight right now built for (the playoffs). He's not one of them."
Under Dalton and Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have lost three consecutive playoff openers, tying an NFL record. And it's easy to assign additional blame to Lewis, who is now 0-5 in the playoffs in 11 seasons as head coach. As one executive told me: "I'd rank him as the fourth-best coach on his staff, behind (Mike) Zimmer, Hue (Jackson) and Jay (Gruden)."
It's tough to win games in the NFL, and I can't pooh-pooh what the Bengals have accomplished in the regular season. But if Cincinnati couldn't make a playoff run this year -- when the AFC is wide open and relatively weak -- when will it happen?
Yes, the Bengals won the AFC North, but Baltimore was going through a transitional period. Pittsburgh wasn't very good, and Cleveland ended up firing another coach after another awful season. The Ravens and Steelers are great organizations, and you could see them getting better in 2014. The Browns, meanwhile, have a couple of first-round picks and a solid defense.
Dalton is heading into the final year of his contract. It's not hyperbole to call the 2014 season a gigantic one that will determine his future in Cincy. I would expect the Bengals to consider taking a quarterback in the draft -- and they should. They have to know Dalton isn't the one to take them to the next level.
I root for Andy Dalton. I love his competitive fire. But he can't get it done in a big spot. Sunday proved it again -- as if there was any doubt.