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Dalton must improve vs. Steelers with AFC North title on the line

The Bengals' month-long immersion in the AFC North could conclude Sunday in Pittsburgh.

A loss would make the Bengals 7-5 and put them two games behind Pittsburgh, and perhaps two behind Baltimore; the Ravens have that weird streak of losing to subpar teams after big wins (its happened three times this year), and they're at Cleveland Sunday. A loss keeps the Bengals squarely in the wild-card race, but the Jets, Titans and Broncos could all be 7-5 by nightfall Sunday, so Cincinnati would be among a crowd after starting the season with six of eight wins. Not good.

I'd be more worried about a secondary allowing 247 passing yards per game over the last five weeks if I were Bengals coach Marvin Lewis than about quarterback Andy Dalton Sunday in the kid's first game at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger's connection with Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace in recent weeks (last five games for Brown and Wallace: 52 catches, 772 yards), combined with the shaky Cincinnati secondary, makes it more likely than not that Dalton could end up in a shootout against one of the best deep throwers in football. And that's going to be a tough game for Dalton to win.

But as Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told his players this week: "Dalton's not a game-manager.'' He's capable of airing it out, and could well do so since fellow rookie A.J. Green seems healthy enough after his knee scare three weeks ago on the touchdown catch in that Troy Polamalu-Ryan Clark end-zone sandwich. Dalton will go to Green early and often Sunday.

When I spoke to Clark Thursday, that's one of the things he said he liked about Dalton -- the approach to the game to take chances and try to let his good receivers, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham mostly, make plays.

"The first time we played,'' said Clark, "the one thing we noticed is his poise. We didn't rattle him and we didn't confuse him. He is supremely confident. For a young player, it's surprising that he has the confidence to throw it up there and let his players make plays. That pass to A.J. Green [in the first meeting] was a terrible pass, to be honest. But Andy understands A.J. Green is a phenomenal talent and if he throws it up there, A.J.'s going to make that play a lot of times.

"I like how he understands you've got to keep on playing. You have to stay the same, even if things go wrong. He reminds me of Ben like that -- Ben makes a mistake, and he's exactly the same player on the next series. That's what you see in Dalton. All the tape we've watched, we've never seen one sign of panic.''

Clark said something surprising to me about the importance of the game to the Steelers. "I don't see a way, an opportunity, to win our division, if we lose Sunday,'' he said. "A loss to Cincinnati, and it'd be impossible to win the division.''

Not impossible, but if the Steelers are a game behind the Ravens after Sunday, it'd be like being two games behind, because Baltimore swept the season series with Pittsburgh.

"If we want a chance to win the division, we've got to win Sunday,'' Clark said.

Two teams playing at Heinz Field Sunday can say that.

Good nuggets from my podcast this week with NFL Network's Mike Mayock and regular guest Bob McGinn. The podcast is on iTunes and SI.com.

Mayock on:

Doing his homework on players: "I'm a coach's son, and I think he would shoot me if I went out there and tried to offer opinions on teams or players without having watched the film first. ... If I get asked a question on a guy and I haven't seen him on tape, a lot of times I'll just say look, 'I know a little bit about him, and I have a feeling for him, but I haven't studied him yet.' And until I study him, I can't own that opinion. And I think whether you're right or wrong, you gotta own it.''

Baltimore's penchant for losing games after winning big ones: "Every time they [Baltimore] have an emotional win they've lost the next one ... Well, it's human nature to let down after a huge win like Pittsburgh. And that might be the most physical game of the year every year in the NFL. I think they're better off when they have that next game [against] somebody A) they know, and B) that grabs their attention a little bit. I think there's a danger of high-highs and low-lows. And I think that's why you have to guard against it, and I think that's why certain teams that have won a bunch of championships have a little bit more of a week-to-week focus that every game is 1/16th of a season. You can't just say that, Peter, you have to buy into it."

Tim Tebow: "I've been teasing a bunch of my buddies around the league for years now, defensive coordinators, that you guys have it easy in the NFL in the run game. The run game is so much more simplistic in the NFL than it is in college. Now, the pass game is much more complicated. But the NFL run game has always just been power and counter and 'OK, now we're gonna run inside zone or outside zone stretch' -- whatever. It's a no-brainer; there's nothing to it. Every team has done the same thing -- it's vanilla.

"All of sudden, here comes Tim Tebow in this college system and it's forcing coordinators to make phone calls to their buddies in the college level to say, 'How do we deal with this?' It's forcing coordinators to put tape on and learn from the mistakes of the other teams that have already played Denver. It's forcing coordinators to completely rip up gameplans and change the way they look at things in today's NFL. I love it."

Andrew Luck: "As far as throwing the football, he doesn't have a John Elway arm or a Dan Marino arm. Heck, he doesn't have anywhere near a JaMarcus Russell arm. He's got a very similar arm, I think, to say a Matt Ryan, which is good, very good, but not great. What he is though, that separates him from Matt Ryan or Peyton Manning, is he is a much better athlete. He's got great feet, he's a big strong guy in his lower body, he runs very well. So I think he's got all that intangible stuff, his arm is plenty good enough and I think he's a real good athlete. So when I look at him I think, OK, yeah, that's a first round pick, a potential No. 1 overall pick and somebody, who, with development and good personnel around him should be someday a Pro Bowl player.

Matt Barkley: "I believe he's a first-round pick. I don't think his physical skill set is overwhelming, but I love what I see about his game. I think he looks like an Andy Dalton, but more polished and more ready to go.''

Kansas City QB Kyle Orton (No. 8). Today is the one-week anniversary of Orton's first practice with the Chiefs. He probably won't start Sunday at Chicago in his return to Soldier Field, where he started 33 games for the Bears from 2005 through 2008, but he could come off the bench early if Tyler Palko falters. Which Palko likely will do. I expect Orton to start the next two games for Kansas City after this one (at the Jets, home with Green Bay) as the Chiefs try to keep their microscopic hopes alive in the AFC West.

1. Rolando McClain's status. In Alabama for his grandfather's funeral this week, the eighth pick in the 2010 draft -- and starting middle linebacker for the Raiders -- got into a scuffle with, apparently, an old friend. According to a Decatur, Ala., police report, McClain held a gun to the man's head, the man begged McClain not to shoot, and McClain aimed the gun past his head and pulled the trigger. When the cops led McClain away, he smiled stupidly for the cameras. Raiders at Dolphins Sunday. Raiders playing to stay atop the AFC West. McClain expected to play.

2. Angry Giants. Embarrassed at New Orleans Monday night, the Giants welcome Aaron Rodgers to the Meadowlands. Uh-oh. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said Thursday the Giants' rush, feeble on Monday, will hit Rodgers Sunday. Re: the Saints, Fewell said: "They hit us in the mouth and we didn't respond. I was pissed." Time to do something about it.

3. Quarterback roulette. Caleb Hanie has Josh McCown breathing down his neck in Chicago. I told you about Palko and Orton in Kansas City. And when Kellen Clemens and Jake Delhomme learn the Houston offense, they'll be pressing T.J. Yates. Fun times with depth charts!

4. Tebow the passer. At Minnesota Sunday, Tim Tebow might throw a little. The Vikes' secondary, without its best player (Antoine Winfield's on IR), has allowed 68 percent completions and 22 touchdowns. Will he or won't he? Throw it, I mean. And win.

5. McNabb's fate. With no team claiming him in Friday's waiver process, where does he go now? As an unrestricted free agent, he can shop his services.

6. AFC North clarity. Ravens-Browns. Bengals-Steelers. The game in Pittsburgh will knock one team out of the title race.

7. The Reign of Khan. Shad Khan, expected to be approved as owner of the Jags, will lie low Monday night when the Chargers come to Jacksonville. I think he'll be a good owner. I'm not sure where exactly he'll be doing the owning, though.

8. The Colts, 21-point 'dogs. We're not supposed to talk about point spreads here. But I have to ask, why isn't it 31?

9. Peyton Manning news. With Manning's neck fusion surgery pronounced a success at the 12-week mark, I eagerly await the next news on his fate. And for those who wonder why in the world the hopeless Colts would want to get him on the field in the season's last month: Wouldn't you want to know how he's doing physically, and whether he can throw unimpeded, before deciding whether to hand him $28 million this winter?

10. Reid rumors. Andy Reid has the wolves howling at the door. And the awful show Thursday night only increases the volume.

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