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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Cincinnati's Dalton getting it done where it counts most

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rave about Cam Newton all you want, but the rookie quarterback who should be getting more attention has flaming red hair, lacks the prototypical size, an aw-shucks demeanor, but plays with a killer instinct that is an essential for the position.

Ever heard of Andy Dalton?

For a quarterback, Newton, the Carolina Panthers' star rookie, is huge and Dalton, the Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback, is smallish. Newton has the big arm, while Dalton's arm was questioned a lot before the draft. Newton can be electrifying, while Dalton can be workmanlike.

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    One more thing: Newton is 2-6 and Dalton is 6-2.

    Dalton threw three touchdown passes Sunday to lead the Bengals to a 24-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans to stay tied atop the AFC North division. The Bengals have won five consecutive games, their longest winning streak in 23 years, with the last time coming in 1988, the last time they went to the Super Bowl.

    Can the quarterback get some love?

    "I am not worried about that," Dalton said after the game when I asked him about being the overlooked rookie. "The wins are the important thing. Everyone has an opinion."

    Coming out of TCU, there were a lot of negative opinions about his game. They said he was too small. They said his arm wasn't good enough to make the NFL throws. They said he would struggle because he came from a spread offense.

    CBSSports.com Grades
    Cincinnati Bengals
    Cincinnati Bengals
    A-
    Despite a poor first half defensively, the Bengals again showed maturity beyond their years with a dominant second half where they allowed only 56 yards in capturing their first five-game win streak since 1988. Andy Dalton's first three-touchdown pass game only added to his Rookie of the Year campaign.
    By Paul Dehner
    RapidReports Correspondent
    Tennessee Titans
    Tennessee Titans
    C+
    Injuries to WR Lavelle Hawkins and FB Ahmard Hall caused the offense to stall in the second half. By the time both returned, the Titans had squandered their 10-point halftime lead. Tennessee wasted a timeout on offense in the fourth quarter that it desperately needed on a potential game-tying drive.
    By Matt Rybaltowski
    RapidReports Correspondent

    Now he's got the Bengals relevant again. This is a team that appeared destined to be in the mix for the top pick next spring, especially when Carson Palmer took his ball and went home. But Dalton's play, coupled with an aggressive defense that is the most underrated unit in the league, has the Bengals thinking playoffs.

    Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was the person responsible for pushing the organization to take Dalton last spring. Gruden thought his West Coast system to be perfect for Dalton's skill set, which seems to be the truth.

    Their relationship works. The closeness of it came through when Gruden stopped by Dalton's locker after the game to rib him about some of the signals he missed. Gruden, the brother of former NFL coach Jon Gruden, is in his first year with the team, so they are growing together.

    "Having to start a guy in his first year, we though his composure and poise and know knowledge of football in general made him the right fit," Gruden said. "So far, so good. He's made a few mistakes here and there, but over the course of the game he doesn't make many. He seldom makes the same mistakes twice."

    Dalton finished 22 of 39 for 217 yards and the three touchdowns against the Titans. He didn't turn the ball over, which was key. Those numbers aren't stellar, but the way he got them was impressive.

    The Bengals fell behind 17-7 at the half, but scored 17 unanswered points to get to 4-1 on the road this season. What made this even more impressive is the Bengals were playing a second-consecutive road game.

    "We're doing what we have to do to win the game," Dalton said.

    It helps that he has rookie receiver A.J. Green. The team's first-round pick is a big-time weapon that has to be doubled. The Titans doubled him a lot Sunday -- he still caught seven passes for 83 yards -- and that led Dalton's three touchdown passes going to three different receivers not named Green.

    Dalton first hit tight end Chris Cochart. That was a rollout to the right for Dalton and instead of running out of bounds like some young quarterbacks would do, Dalton fired across his body to Cochart for the score.

    The second and third touchdown throws were to Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. The one to Simpson was a dart for 15 yards in the middle of the field. The one to Caldwell was a quick throw for a 5-yard score.

    "Some of those throws show his arm is plenty strong enough," Gruden said.

    Dalton was the fifth quarterback taken last spring's draft. He went in the second round after four others went in the first. The arm strength question seems to still bother him some.

    "I always wondered why there was that talk," Dalton said. "The whole draft process everyone seemed to be trying to find thing to critique. But I ended up where I was supposed to be."

    I asked him if the knocks motivate him.

    "It is definitely motivation," he said. "I want to go out and prove everyone wrong who didn't draft me."

    It can be tough for a rookie to take over the team. But Dalton clearly has done that. Palmer was the veteran leader for so long, which meant Dalton had to win over the locker room -- and the huddle.

    "Everybody expected a fall-off, with Carson a 10-year veteran and him a rookie," Caldwell said. "But he stepped up to the challenge and acted like he's been there before. It was very surprising how much command of the huddle he had right away."

    Now comes the tough part for Dalton. The Bengals have two games left with both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, starting next week at home against the Steelers.

    As one Bengals official shouted to defensive end Carlos Dunlap in the locker room, "It's Pittsburgh week."

    And it means something.

    If the Bengals can win there, it might get the attention coming to Dalton that he deserves.

    "He's getting overlooked," Caldwell said. "You keep winning and people will come."

    Just remember: Only one rookie quarterback has led his team to a winning record, and his name isn't Cam.


    Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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