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'TNF' preview: Has Andy Dalton made the leap?

No one wants to fully buy in on the new Andy Dalton. Perhaps it's because we've seen him roll through hot stretches before. The AFC offensive player of the month in October has had periods of brilliance in his first and second seasons before prolonged slumps. It's like we're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Make no mistake: Dalton is playing at a higher level than he ever has. He's averaging more than 10 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions over the last three weeks. That doesn't include Cincinnati's win over the New England Patriots, when Dalton made a number of key plays to help his team win.

Even when things are rolling, Dalton has missed a lot of vertical throws down the field. But his decision-making has been excellent and Cincinnati's offense has learned how to attack quality defenses like Buffalo and Detroit.

After a month of the season, we criticized Dalton for looking like a finished product. He started off his career strong, but there wasn't any growth after that. He's undeniably made strides the last few weeks. On Thursday night in Miami, we'll be watching closely to see whether he can keep it up and move into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.

  1. Ryan Tannehill's progress has stagnated in recent weeks after a fast start to the season. This is the normal path of young quarterbacks, but it can be frustrating to watch Tannehill at times because he can lock into his primary receivers and hold on to the ball too long. He also can uncork four to six beautiful throws per game and make plays on the move that few quarterbacks can.

Unlike Andrew Luck, Tannehill is not capable of carrying an offense on his own. He needs a lot of help, and he isn't getting it.

  1. Brandon Gibson was a more valuable free-agent pickup than Mike Wallace until Gibson's season-ending torn patella tendon. Wallace often fails to make the tough catch. He had three chances last week to make a game-changing play, and failed each time. The Bengals are a little short-handed at cornerback following Leon Hall's season-ending injury, but Terence Newman and Adam "Pacman" Jones have continued to be surprisingly effective.

Crafty veteran cornerbacks shouldn't be able to handle Wallace's speed. But Tannehill and Wallace have struggled to get on the same page all season.

  1. Perhaps the Dolphins could take pressure off Tannehill by continuing to run. Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller both have looked great the last two weeks. Thomas is making defenders miss and finishing runs like never before. Miller has uncorked a few big plays and ran hard. Facing solid defenses, the Dolphins have rushed for 276 yards with nearly 5 yards per carry.
  1. Miami should have its best player, defensive end Cameron Wake, back at full strength for the game. The Dolphins expected their defense to carry this team, but they have been average.
  1. Geno Atkins gets all the attention on Cincinnati's defensive line, but defensive ends Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry have been terrific this season. Johnson is a complete player who can rush the passer and stop the run. He's playing better than he did last season, when he played well enough to earn the franchise tag. Gilberry is a rare commodity: An excellent reserve pass rusher who can give starters a rest without any dropoff in play.

With Dolphins right tackle Jonathan Martin out for this game after his "emotional breakdown," look for the Bengals to take advantage of Tyson Clabo on the right side.

We handed out our Midseason Hero Awards in the latest "Around the League" Podcast.

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