Andy Dalton and the Bengals have played on three straight wild-card weekends, and lost every time. Opportunity No. 4 comes Sunday. A Cincinnati coach talks about all the pressure. Plus, another spotlight player and 10 more things to watch
The way I see it, there are two players under the most significant pressure as the NFL playoffs begin with a fairly intriguing wild-card weekend: Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton. Others are under the spotlight—Tony Romo, Ryan Lindley, Matthew Stafford, Jason Garrett, Cam Newton—but none as intensely as Suh and Dalton.
Suh is the key to what the Lions do defensively, and he is playing one of the most versatile offensive teams in football in Sunday’s late game, when the sixth-seeded Lions travel to the third-seeded Cowboys. Dallas has football’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, and football’s top-rated quarterback, Tony Romo. Suh had his one-game suspension for stepping on Aaron Rodgers reduced to a $70,000 fine by arbitrator Ted Cottrell on Tuesday, and truthfully, had Suh missed this game, Dallas would have been a double-digit winner, easily. As it stands now, center Travis Frederick and guard Ron Leary will have their hands full keeping Suh from ruining Dallas’s first playoff appearance since the 2009 season. “If you do not have a game plan for Ndamukong," said fellow defensive tackle C.J. Mosley from Detroit on Thursday, “he will wreck the game. I have seen it."
That is well established. Let’s leave that for a moment and focus on the AFC’s fifth seed, Cincinnati. The Bengals travel 110 miles up I-74 to face fourth-seeded Indianapolis in the early game Sunday. I want to emphasize this: Andy Dalton’s accomplishment of making the playoffs in his first four NFL seasons is extraordinary. In Joe Montana’s first four seasons, he made the playoffs one time. Dalton stepped off the TCU campus and into the NFL, started every game since being Cincinnati’s second-round pick in 2011, and won 9, 10, 11 and 10 games. Playoffs every time.
I know. Dalton is flawed. We watch. We see. He has been abysmal in the three wild-card losses (to Houston twice and San Diego, respectively), and his prime-time record is barely better. But the reality, people, is he has averaged 10 wins a season starting with the first game of his NFL career after being a second-round pick. So let’s begin there.
"The contract was given [to Dalton] with the expectation that we would be back here, in the playoffs," Hue Jackson said. "You have to acknowledge that. You can’t let it go. We have to validate all the work we’ve done this year on Sunday."
"We have to exorcise the elephant in the room," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said to me Thursday night, in one of the great lines I have heard all season. The elephant is Dalton’s horrible postseason record (0-3, one touchdown, six picks, 56.2 rating), and Jackson made it clear to me that while he wasn’t publicizing it in team meetings this week, he was making clear to the team that for whom much is invested, much is expected. Dalton was rewarded by the Bengals before the season with a six-year, $96-million contract (with some outs for the club) that brings with it the weight of expectations.
"The contract was given by the organization with the expectation that we would be back here, in the playoffs, again, and not just for one year," Jackson said from his office in Cincinnati after the work day Thursday. “Now is the time we really need to earn our keep. [Coach] Marvin Lewis and [owner] Mike Brown have put a lot of faith in us. The guy who signs our checks, Mike Brown, deserves a return on his investment. I mean, you have to acknowledge that. You can’t let it go. We have to validate all the work we’ve done this year on Sunday."
I love that, because while the Bengals have taken pains to separate this team from every other one that has lost in the playoffs before this year, Jackson doesn’t. He gets it. He doesn’t want to put more pressure on his team, but he also doesn’t want to lie. That, to me, is smart. “I don’t believe in running from reality," Jackson said. “And I see a group that understands where we are and what they are facing. I have seen a focused group this week. This has been the most focused week of practice I have seen in Andy. I think it will show up on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, the Lions have breathed a sigh to have Suh back. When the verdict from Cottrell came down Tuesday, Mosley, who has gotten close to Suh since signing as a free agent from Jacksonville in 2013, hugged him and said, “Welcome back."
"The young man doesn’t show emotion," Mosley said. “But I am sure, deep down inside, he is glad to be back. This is a big game, for us and for him. Dallas, the playoffs, the great offense that they have. This is a game he definitely did not want to miss. He is driven—in practice and in games. We’ve seen it this week in practice.’’
Sunday is going to be a fascinating day. Career-defining? Maybe not. But Dalton would be scarred, maybe forever, with a fourth opening-game playoff loss in four years. Suh, in what could be his last game for the Lions, hasn’t had a signature win—nor a playoff win—in five Detroit seasons. So it will be a compelling day for two players, and two teams.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
James Hurst, left tackle, Baltimore (number 74). Regular left tackle Eugene Monroe, the eighth pick in the 2009 draft and the player acquired by Ozzie Newsome in mid-2013 to shore up a big need for four or five years, missed his third straight practice—all of them leading up to Saturday night’s match at Pittsburgh—due to an ankle injury. Hurst starts for the sixth time this season if Monroe cannot play. A four-year starter at North Carolina, Hurst signed as an undrafted free-agent with Baltimore in May, and the coaches have been impressed with his feistiness and relative quickness at 6-5 and 295.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
John Harbaugh, on how he's paying back Chiefs coach Andy Reid after K.C. knocked off the Chargers to put Harbaugh's Ravens in the playoffs...
"Absolutely, I promised Andy dinner. He responded very favorably to that. He's looking forward to his dinner so, you know, it probably won't be cheap."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“I told them not to answer your questions, and just tell you, ‘That’s not me.’ It’s got nothing to do with them. You know what I mean? That team, last year’s team, it’s a different team, different people, different circumstances, so what we have to do in order to win games is not turn the ball over and you have to play good on defense. It’s pretty simple.”
—Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, who instructed his players not to talk about the past three seasons, each of which ended in a wild-card loss, in advance of their wild-card date at Indianapolis on Sunday.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The Jets, facing pressure to hire Doug Marrone. This weekend will be very interesting. A Jets hiring delegation—owner Woody Johnson, president Neil Glat, and consultants Charlie Casserly and Ron Wolf—are in Seattle today and Saturday to interview two coaching candidates (Dan Quinn, Tom Cable) and a GM candidate (Trent Kirchner), all with the Seahawks. Then they return to New Jersey, and they’re expected to interview Doug Marrone soon after returning east. I’m hearing Johnson’s consultants are singing the praises of Marrone over all candidates. Fine. But Johnson owes it to the program to interview a load of candidates. Marrone is not Jim Harbaugh.
2. The Marrone fallout. Did the Bills seriously guarantee Doug Marrone $4 million and unrestricted freedom after two seasons if, like, he just wanted to leave? I get that you’ve got to offer him freedom if the team is sold. That’s fine. But to hand him his 2015 pay for not coaching? I can tell you that free-money clause is one I’d never have agreed to, even if it meant losing Marrone. And was it Marrone’s poor endorsement of the front office that cost Buffalo the chance to have Bill Polian return to run the organization? The Bills look awful this morning, after a very encouraging year.
3. The sliding Cards. Bruce Arians is good at making average players play above their heads in big moments. If Ryan Lindley can win a playoff game on the road, the Associated Press should dispense with the mystery and just give Arians coach of the year. On Saturday night.
4. The green Cards. (No pun intended.) According to one of my favorite PR things—the Arizona Cardinals’ “Note Cards”—41 of 53 players on the team will be making their postseason debut Saturday. And one more: Arizona is 3-0 all-time in wild-card games, including that ridiculously wacky 51-45 overtime job over Aaron Rodgers five years ago. One stat the Cards didn’t pump out: Arizona’s lost four of six, and Carolina is the hotter team. Also, Arizona hasn’t scored more than 18 points in a game in seven weeks.
5. The Ravens, trying to buck a trend. Baltimore is 0-3 lifetime in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. The Ravens, in John Harbaugh’s reign, have lost to the Steelers in the AFC title game and in an AFC divisional game. Now they get to play an AFC wild-card game.
6. Josh Harris. “I feel great," Le’Veon Bell said Wednesday … but it’s still dubious that he’ll play, or play significant minutes, against the Ravens. Harris was on the Steelers’ practice squad for the first 11 weeks of the season, was activated Week 12, and showed some speed in a called-back 59-yard sprint down the sideline against the Bengals last week. Ben Tate is on hand for running back insurance, but Harris has some faith inside the Steelers’ front office.
7. How the Rooney Rule is used. The Jets seemed to mock it by interviewing their own running backs coach, Anthony Lynn, before heading west to interview two Seattle candidates. No one has Lynn as a candidate for offensive coordinator, never mind head coach. Not sure what the league can do, other than to say to the Jets: Will you please take this rule seriously?
8. Debating the number one pick in the draft. At least four NFL general managers with quarterback needs (including top-pick GM Jason Licht of the Bucs) were in the Rose Bowl for the showdown between quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Jameis Winston of Florida State Thursday. They probably walked away from the game thinking good thoughts of Mariota (26 of 36, 338 yards, two TDs, one pick) and okay thoughts of Winston (29 of 45, 348 yards, one TD, one pick). But ball-protection continues to be an issue with Winston. It’ll be an interesting postseason of quarterback dissection.
9. Tony Romo’s legacy, and Jason Garrett’s fate. Big pressure on both to win a game they’re supposed to win—home, against a flawed offensive team (Detroit). Garrett isn’t assured to return in 2015, though it’s likely. It’ll be certain with a win Sunday.
10. The 49ers. I am hearing they’re quite interested in Mike Shanahan. We’ll see what the weekend brings.
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