Andy Dalton's broken thumb on his right throwing hand was the fulcrum on which the Bengals' season turned as the normally durable quarterback missed the first three games of his Bengals career after getting hurt Week 14 against Pittsburgh.
Although first-year backup QB AJ McCarron performed admirably the rest of the way under adverse circumstances, albeit with the expected inconsistent results, the Bengals missed Dalton, especially in the postseason, one in which they thought they had a shot at getting a first win in 25 years.
Dalton missed his first playoff game, the debacle in the rematch against the Steelers. The Bengals missed the opportunity to exercise their postseason demons by imploding late in a penalty-marred final minutes of the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh.
Bengals doubters couldn't pin this one on Dalton, not when they had Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones as convenient offseason pinatas in the wake of their, shall we say, loss of focus against Pittsburgh. Dalton, on the other hand, helped put the Bengals on the path to a 12-win season, tying the best in franchise history, and their fifth consecutive playoff appearance with what was shaping up to be a career year.
Dalton joined Baltimore’s Joe Flacco as the NFL’s only starting QBs in the Super Bowl era to lead a team to the postseason in each of his first five seasons. Flacco did it with Baltimore from 2008-12. Dalton has done it from 2011 through this past season. Flacco’s streak was snapped when the Ravens missed the playoffs in 2013. If Dalton leads the Bengals to the playoffs again in 2016, he’ll set a new benchmark.
Dalton had enough attempts this season to qualify for passing titles. When all was said and done, he had a better rating than Tom Brady. Dalton claimed the AFC passing title, ranking first in the AFC and second in the NFL with a 106.3 rating. That was bettered by only the 110.1 mark posted by Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Arizona’s Carson Palmer ranked third in the NFL at 104.6, followed by New England’s Brady at 102.2.
Dalton becomes the first Bengals quarterback to lead the AFC in passer rating since Boomer Esiason with a 92.1 mark in 1989. Esiason also led the AFC in 1988. Ken Anderson led the AFC four times (1974, ’75, ’81 and ’82). Bengals QBs have led the NFL in passing five times — four by Anderson and most recently by Esiason in ’88.
Consistency was a hallmark for Dalton in 2015. With regard to passer rating, he was in the NFL’s top five every week since the conclusion of Week 3 play. He had two weeks at No. 1, four weeks at No. 2 and six weeks at No. 3. He was the NFL leader through Week 7 as well as through Week 13.
He finished 255-for-386 passing (66.1 percent) for 3,250 yards (250 per game), with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ranked second in the league in average gain per attempt (8.42). He tied for third in percentage of passes for TDs (6.5), eighth in completion percentage (66.1) and eighth in lowest interception percentage (1.8).
Dalton had 3,191 yards passing and 25 touchdowns after 12 games (he threw for 59 yards and no TDs before getting hurt against Pittsburgh). That's an average of 266 yards and nearly 2.1 passing scores per game in 12 games. Dalton's prorated numbers over a full 16 games would be 4,314 passing yards, which would have set a career high, and 33 TDs, which would have tied a career high. The prorated yards total would have ranked eighth in the league while the prorated TD total would have ranked seventh (Dalton ranked 21st in yards and 14th in passing TDs).
Dalton’s 106.3 season passer rating is a Bengals record, eclipsing by more than five points the previous mark of 101.1 set by Palmer in 2005. Though he missed all or most of the last four regular-season games, he had far more than enough attempts (386) on the season to remain qualified for the record. The Bengals use the same standard employed by the NFL for season passer rankings, a minimum of 224 attempts, an average of 14.0 over 16 games.
Though he missed the Bengals' final two road games, Dalton's 24 road-game wins in his five-year career is the most by any NFL quarterback in his first five seasons (record researched back to the 1970 merger by Elias Sports Bureau). Cincinnati’s Dec. 6 win at Cleveland was his 24th. Prior to that, Dalton shared the mark of 23 with some guys you might have heard of -- Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan.