By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — There once was a thought Andy Dalton could be the heir apparent to Peyton Manning.
Former Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian was enamored with the young quarterback from TCU and brought him in for predraft workouts in 2011. Ultimately the team chose to go in a different direction and took left tackle Anthony Castonzo out of Boston College with the 22nd overall pick.
The Cincinnati Bengals took Dalton off the board in the second round just 13 picks later, well before the Colts' turn came up again.
The task of replacing Manning eventually fell to another Texan a year later, and Andrew Luck will lead Indianapolis into the Queen City on Sunday for a key late-season AFC matchup.
It turns out, Dalton's had his eye on the kid for quite some time now.
"I knew him in high school so I've kind of followed his career throughout high school, college and now being in the NFL," Dalton said. "He's a guy that's done a lot of really good things. He's a guy that's fun to watch. He's doing a lot for that offense, moving around in the pocket, getting the ball to his guys. And so he's definitely a guy that I enjoy watching."
Of course, Dalton would prefer not to see much of Luck and his offense this weekend.
The Colts and Bengals each enter this week's game with 8-4 records. The winner has the inside track on the AFC's No. 3 overall seed and can continue to entertain hopes of catching New England (9-3) for the second seed and a first-round bye. The loser likely will be relegated to the No. 4 seed and a first-round date against the 9-3 Kansas City Chiefs.
"I think this is a big game for us at home, and we know what's at stake here — not only from the playoff standpoint but for where we want to go as a team," Dalton said. "We know what's going into the game. We're coming out and going to be playing our best."
The Bengals have become a different franchise since drafting Dalton. Once the laughingstock of the league, they've made the playoffs in each of the quarterback's first two seasons and are well on the way to making it three in a row.
But they have yet to win a playoff game with this new regime, losing in the first round against the AFC South champion Houston Texans in each appearance. With a two-game lead over the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens (6-6) in the AFC North, Cincinnati's angling for a home game and a deeper postseason run this time around.
For that to happen, Dalton will need to be in top form. His playoff resume thus far has been underwhelming — throwing for 384 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
But he's continuing to make strides in the regular season. His 262-yard per game average is the highest of his three-year career, and he's on pace for a career-high 29 touchdown passes.
A lot of that is due to a more balanced offense with wide receivers Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Andrew Hawkins joining A.J. Green as consistent targets, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovanni Bernard providing a varied rushing attack.
But some of the credit must go to Dalton, himself, who continues to learn on the job.
"As a rookie, he was our starting quarterback," Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said. "Last year, he was the leader of our offense, and now he's kind of assumed the position as leader of the team. He continues to progress and do things in the right way. The only thing I caution Andy about is just don't try to do too much."
The latter has manifested itself at times with 16 interceptions and four fumbles this season. But the good far outweighs the bad. Dalton also is completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 3,144 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Cincinnati has won its last two games following an overtime loss against Baltimore on Nov. 10 and has won six of its last eight overall. And the wins have come in different fashions.
Dalton threw for more than 300 yards in four straight games — including three wins — from Oct. 13 through Oct. 31. But he needed just 190 passing yards in last week's 17-10 win at San Diego. That's because the running game accounted for 164 yards and controlled the clock.
The week before that, Dalton threw for just 93 yards against Cleveland. But the defense and special teams each scored a touchdown in a 41-20 rout.
"Last week, we ran the ball a lot more just because we were getting some big runs," Dalton said. "Different things have gone into the factor of what we're doing. For us, we're winning these games and we've got to keep doing whatever it takes to win."