It’s quite odd how chain reactions work in sports. The difference between the same five events can lead to either a positive or negative end result, and that the end result can itself be viewed in an entirely different light further down the road. Following that train of thought, let’s look back on the roller coaster ride that was the Bengals 28-24 victory against the now 0-3 Baltimore Ravens and see it for what it was—a crucial moment in the framework of this season and, potentially, a seismic shift in the trajectory of Andy Dalton’s career. That doesn’t happen if the Bengals go into halftime up 21-0, as they should have, and coast to a comfortable victory with little to no need for the passing game in the second half (See: Raiders, Oakland). Instead, the combination of a few ill-timed penalties, an inexplicable moment from the NFL rule book, and 36-year old Steve Smith Sr. going off the freaking rails forced the same Andy Dalton that approximately 75 percent of Cincinnati loathes to be the absolute best that we’ve ever seen him. Here’s how it all transpired.
8:07, First Quarter
Dalton started things off with a perfectly weighted 32-yard pass to Marvin Jones to reach Ravens territory for the first time on the day. The remainder of the drive consisted of four incompletions, five Jeremy Hill carries, and five penalties between the two teams, including a delay of game infraction on Dalton. It was, quite honestly, a hideous display by both sides. However, it did result in the Bengals first score, and the advent of the “Dalton Shimmy,” which, per my googling, has still not been spliced into a GIF. Do better, internet. And, DO BETTER, Courtney Upshaw.
12:18, Second Quarter
The Bengals third drive began at the Ravens 30-yard line, via a gift wrapped lob pass from Joe Flacco to Adam Jones. After three incompletions, and another free first down via penalty on the Ravens secondary, Dalton threaded the needle between man coverage and a safety over top to hit Jones with a perfect strike for a 16-yard touchdown.
Despite not playing all that well up to that point, with the exception of his two connections with Jones, Dalton and the Bengals offense found themselves leading 14-0 after just three drives.
7:35 to 2:00, Second Quarter
The Bengals fourth drive is the hinge behind the concept of this article, and the performances of Dalton’s and A.J. Green’s careers. The duo caught fire, connecting five times for 63 yards, including a 17-yard connection on third and nine, and a 31-yard grab, both of which were perfectly thrown between multiple defenders. However, facing third and five at the Baltimore six-yard line, and having just used a timeout, the Bengals committed their second delay of game penalty. (To be fair to Dalton, this instance seemed to be clearly the fault of center Russel Bodine.) Regardless, it forced an eventual fourth and one at the Ravens two, which resulted in yet another frustrating interpretation of the NFL’s “Complete the process rule.” Tyler Eifert, having caught the ball, taken three steps, and reached over the goal line with clear possession, had the ball kicked out of his hands prior to going to the ground and….I don’t know, whatever. At any rate, Dalton was brilliant on the drive. Had either the delay of game penalty, or the NFL officiating issue, not occurred, the Bengals lead 21-0 with momentum and possession coming at the half, and the game is over. Instead, Dalton kept throwing.
10:49, Third Quarter
Dalton went right at the Ravens to open the second half, knocking out most of the drive on a 47-yard bomb to Green, of course, bookended by a 10-yard strike to Jones and a bad drop by Tyler Eifert. And then, with a chance to seal the effectively seal the game, Dalton underthrew Green on a short fade in the end zone, resulting in a Jimmy Smith Interception. If Dalton throws the ball to the pylon, Green almost certainly catches it, and the game, again, is over.
6:37, Third Quarter
Dalton’s interception was the first sniff of momentum for Baltimore all day, and then Steve Smith Sr. lost his damn mind.
6:49, Fourth Quarter
After a Ravens field goal and two stalled drives (penalties), The Bengals took over with 9:04 remaining and their lead diminished to just three points, 14-10. Five plays later, disaster struck in the form of an Elvis Dumervill sack and forced fumble, which led to a 41-yard touchdown return for C.J. Mosely.
The overwhelming contingent of Dalton haters among the Cincinnati fan base was quick to write the game off as another Dalton failure. I’d be quicker to point out that Dumervill schooled Eifert, and that I can’t think of a quarterback, save perhaps Ben Roethlisberger, who wouldn’t have fumbled on that play. Regardless, it wouldn’t matter in exactly zero seconds of game time.
6:49, Fourth Quarter
On the Bengals very next play from scrimmage, Dalton walked to the line and changed the play call, as he’s done far more this season than even before, and delivered a beautiful ball to AJ. Green down the seam. 80 yards later, Dalton had delivered the kind of answer to his own mistake that I don’t think we’ve ever seen from him before.
3:56, Fourth Quarter Only to be slightly outdone by Green, Smith Sr. put the pressure back on the Bengals with a 16-yard touchdown catch, thanks in no small part to some uncalled offensive pass interference, capping his day with 13 receptions for 186 yards and two scores. It set the stage for Dalton to finish his performance with a game-winning drive, and he did not disappoint.
3:56 to 2:10, Fourth Quarter
For as good as he was in the entire second half, Dalton was surgical on the Bengals game-winning drive. Connecting on 4-of-5 pass attempts to four different receivers on a tactical six-play drive spanning 1:46. He hits Giovani Bernard for 23 yards, Mohammed Sanu for 19, Jones on another deep ball for 31, and finally, Green for a seven-yard TD, on yet another audible at the line.
The score capped a career day for Dalton (20-32, 383 YDS, 3 TD 1INT) and Green (10 REC, 227 YDS, 2 TD), and showed what both can do with a full contingent of healthy options. We’re seeing now just how much Dalton’s performance suffered last season because of the absence of Eifert and Jones. But we’re also seeing something else very different in Dalton. His deep throws have more conviction—less lob, more strike. He isn’t overthrowing passes. His reaction to pressure has significantly improved, which was evident when he avoided a sack and scrambled toward the line of scrimmage before finding Bernard for 23 yards on a short dump off to the left on the game-winning drive. But what’s most evident is his change in command at the line, as was evident throughout Sunday’s game, but most of all on the two touchdown passes to Green. The trendy take is that Dalton might’ve taken the next step. With his offense soaring, the Ravens buried at 0-3, and the Steelers and Browns reeling from injury, it’s safe to assume we’ll find if Dalton has taken that next step in the playoffs. If he does, we’ll look back at this game, which could’ve simply been over at the half, as the moment that started it all.
Joshua A. Miller is a Fulcher 2 Stay and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.