Bengals peaking, Dolphins slumping
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Andy Dalton has heard all the talk: He can't win a big game, his arm isn't strong enough to complete the long pass, and he'll never be more than a caretaker quarterback.
His last three games have changed the conversation.
The third-year quarterback is on the best three-game stretch in Bengals history. He's thrown 11 touchdown passes - no other Bengals quarterback has done that - while hitting every type of throw.
For the first time, he's looking very comfortable in a West Coast offense that the Bengals thought he would grow into someday.
''I don't think there's really anything that's changed in me,'' Dalton said. ''I feel like I'm playing with a lot of confidence and our guys are doing the same thing. That's been big for us.
''We know what we're doing out there, and they're in the right spots and they're making plays. That's kind of what it comes down to.''
Cincinnati (6-2) is in control of the AFC North in large part because its quarterback has grown up a lot this season. He's thrown for 300 yards in three straight games, matching the best such streak in club history, according to STATS LLC. The only other Bengals quarterback to do that was Ken Anderson, and the two of them share the No. 14.
All the talk about what he can't do is giving way to wondering how far he can take the Bengals, who play at Miami (3-4) on Thursday night.
''That's one guy who I don't think feeds into all of that other stuff,'' receiver A.J. Green said. ''It just comes with the territory of being the quarterback.
''I've always had faith in him. We all felt like he was going to take us to the next level, and he's showing that now.''
The second-round pick from TCU did some impressive things in his first two seasons, taking the Bengals to the playoffs as a wild card each year - no other Cincinnati quarterback had done that. He threw 47 touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for most in their first two seasons.
But there were a lot of doubts as well. Much of the credit went to the defense, which was among the league's best. And when the Bengals did reach the playoffs, Dalton had two of his worst games in opening-round losses to Houston.
The Bengals decided to diversify the offense and drafted tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, who are dependable receivers. It took a few games before all the pieces started fitting together.
In the last three, it's worked beautifully. Dalton threw a career-high five touchdown passes - four to second-year receiver Marvin Jones - during a 49-9 win over the Jets on Sunday that showed Dalton can dominate a game.
''He put all those balls on the money, especially the deep balls,'' safety Chris Crocker said.
That's been one of Dalton's biggest shortcomings. During a 19-13 playoff loss at Houston last season, Dalton overthrew an open Green in the end zone in the closing minutes. Dalton spent a lot of time in the offseason working on his throwing motion to get more accuracy on the long passes.
When the Jets came out in man-to-man coverage, the Bengals threw it deep and Dalton connected. Green alone had two catches for more than 50 yards.
''Yeah, that was big,'' Dalton said. ''It's something that's been conscious, that I've worked on. To hit those was definitely gratifying. To know that we've done it in practice, now it's time to do it in some of these games.''
One of the most encouraging signs in the past three weeks is the way Dalton has used his other receivers. In his first two years, he'd lock on Green, who was by far his best option. Now, he has more choices and he's using all of them. For instance, Jones has caught six of his 11 touchdown passes in the last three games.
''As long as he does that and doesn't worry about how many catches (Green) has, at the end of the day we'll be fine,'' coach Marvin Lewis said. ''These other guys are getting to the spots and making the plays while they're there. A.J. is going to get his, he's so doggone good.''
And for the last three games, his quarterback has been, too.
NOTES: MLB Rey Maualuga walked through the locker room on crutches Tuesday, putting weight on his left leg without fully bending the knee. Maualuga hurt the knee and got a concussion during the win over the Jets. ''I've seen better days,'' Maualuga said. ... Maualuga, LB Michael Boley (hamstring), DE Wallace Gilberry (groin), LT Andrew Whitworth (knee) and WR Mohamed Sanu (shoulder) didn't practice. S Taylor Mays (shoulder) has been ruled out for Thursday.
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