For three straight years, Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) have come up short in the playoffs, losing on Wild Card Weekend. Marvin Lewis's squad hopes to avoid a fourth consecutive first-round exit when the calendar turns to 2015 and they visit the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) on Sunday.
Since entering the league in 2011, Dalton has experienced a lot of regular-season success. He’s gone 40-23-1 as a starter, never missing the postseason or winning fewer than nine games. In the playoffs, though, the 27-year-old has known nothing but failure.
Not only have the Bengals lost their last three playoff games, but Dalton struggled in each game. As a rookie, he didn't throw a touchdown pass and was intercepted three times in a 31-10 defeat to the Houston Texans. In the 2013 playoffs, he threw just one interception, but only completed 14-of-30 passes for 127 yards. His performance against the San Diego Chargers on Jan. 5 was the best of Dalton’s postseason career, but that’s not saying much, considering he threw two interceptions and posted a 67.0 passer rating in a 17-point home loss.
Dalton has the opportunity to quiet critics with a strong performance this weekend. The 2014 regular season was the quarterback’s worst 16-game stretch, since he was a rookie. He threw a career-low 19 touchdown passes and tossed 17 interceptions. He was especially bad in a few games, posting a passer rating of less than 70.0 on five different occasions.
One of those performances came in Cincinnati’s Week 7 game at Indianapolis. On 38 pass attempts, Dalton threw for just 126 yards in a 27-0 loss. It was one of the Bengals’ worst offensive games in franchise history, totaling just 135 yards to the Colts' 506 yards.
Indianapolis is likely to face a tougher task in the second meeting between the two teams. An injury kept A.J. Green out of the lineup in Week 7, and the wide receiver leads Cincinnati with 69 catches and 1,041 yards, despite missing three games. The Bengals won just one game when Green was sidelined.
The Colts will also face a much better running game than what they saw on Oct. 19. The Bengals totaled just 32 yards on 12 carries, but ended the season with the sixth best rushing attack. Jeremy Hill, who ran the ball just four times against Indianapolis, has become one of the best offensive weapons in football. Seeing an increased workload, the rookie finished 2014 as the team’s leader with 1,124 rushing yards. He totaled 701 yards in the five games that saw him get at least 22 carries.
Cincinnati is a 3.5-point underdog, and they might need to score a lot of points in order to pull off the upset. Indianapolis finished the regular season ranked third in yards per game (406.6) and sixth in scoring average (28.6), though they haven’t scored more than 27 points since Week 13. The over/under of 49 points is the highest of any game on Wild Card Weekend.
The Colts have struggled to defeat elite teams this season. Each of their five losses have come against opponents with 10 regular-season wins or more, and four came against teams that clinched a postseason berth.
Andrew Luck led the league in passing for much of the season, but he saw a significant drop in his numbers in the final three weeks. After throwing for at least 294 yards in 11 of his first 13 games, Luck failed to throw for more than 187 yards in any of the Colts’ final three contests.
Luck has played in three career playoff games, helping Indianapolis advance beyond the first round last year. He engineered a 28-point, second-half comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs, finishing the game with 443 passing yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions and 45 rushing yards.
While the passing attack has been the best in the NFL (305.9 yards), the Colts have received limited production from the running game. Trent Richardson leads Indianapolis in rushing yards (519), but has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Ahmad Bradshaw played in just 10 games this season, and was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list with a fractured fibula on Nov. 18.
Chuck Pagano rested some of his top players in the final game of the season. Facing the lowly Tennessee Titans, Matt Hasselbeck replaced Luck in the second half. Only three passes were thrown to star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who was sidelined against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 21 with a hamstring injury.
Prediction: Indianapolis over Cincinnati, 30-17