CINCINNATI -- Four days ago, Andy Dalton finished second in the voting for the tightly contested Cincinnati Bengals MVP race that was conducted by the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.
He was edged by linebacker Vontaze Burfict by just two points.
Had the voting been conducted at the close of Sunday afternoon's wild-card round AFC playoff game, he might not have even sniffed the ballot. And he's OK with that.
"It all comes with playing the position," the quarterback said, putting on his best politician's front. "There's a lot that goes on during a game, and the quarterback is in control of everything. He's the leader of the team and of the offense, and when things don't go right, the quarterback is going to get the blame."
For 30 minutes, things were going wonderfully for the Bengals.
For 30 more, they didn't.
It was in that second half against the San Diego Chargers when yet again, on a large, nationally televised stage that Dalton looked more scared than a fawn staring down the headlights of an 18-wheeler. Substitute the tractor trailer with the likes of 300-pound defensive linemen Corey Liuget, Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes and linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson, and you actually have a pretty accurate description. Late in Sunday's playoff game, that defensive front seemed to strike fear within the youngish Dalton.
"Youngish" because can we really consider the 26-year-old Dalton a young quarterback any longer? After all, with a 27-10 loss at home to the Chargers, he has just concluded his third season as the Bengals' starting quarterback. He also has wrapped up his third postseason appearance, becoming the seventh quarterback since the merger to lose his first three playoff games. Each time he's been to the postseason, he's come out on the losing end. He has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions in those three losses.
Yet again, Dalton was, well ... Dalton.
If you're the Bengals, or any other team for that matter, you have to ask yourself: Is this really the guy to whom we want to pin our Super Bowl hopes? Can we?
Before the six-minute mark in the fourth quarter, the twittersphere was abuzz with such inquiries.
A performance like Dalton's latest playoff dud certainly doesn't engender much external confidence. It probably shouldn't engender much internal confidence in him, either. With his contract expiring after next season, the Bengals seriously have to question whether they want to extend him ahead of the 2014 season or let him play next year as a lame duck.
When a quarterback commits three second-half turnovers in a crucial playoff game, it only seems fitting to relegate him to lame-duck status. With even one postseason win, Dalton might have earned himself a few extra bucks this summer. Now those dollars may not come until the start of the 2015 offseason. They'll come, that is, if the Bengals finally do what they should have done this season and get past the first round of the playoffs.
On this ugly, gray-skied January day in southwest Ohio, there was no "Good Andy." There wasn't even a "Bad Andy." There was quite simply "Playoff Andy," the player who has yet to get over the postseason hump that has been his personal boogeyman.
Dalton's two interceptions came at the worst possible moments. The first happened late in the third quarter when Dalton threw off his back foot while an intense pass rush swallowed him. It was easy for Chargers cornerback Shareece Wright to read Dalton's eyes and jump in front of the pass that was intended for Mohamed Sanu.
"He's going to be very disappointed in himself," coach Marvin Lewis said of Dalton. "He is the football team."
Wright's pick led to a second straight Chargers field goal. The previous San Diego score came after another Dalton turnover; a fumble that occurred as Dalton dove, untouched, for the first down at the end of a long scramble with his team down four. That fumble was the beginning of a collection of second-half miscues that effectively gave the game to the Chargers.
"Obviously, the biggest difference was turnovers," Lewis said. "It's the difference in the football game."
It's also the reason Dalton was comfortable shouldering the blame for the loss, even though his teammates wouldn't let him.
"He just has to keep his head up, man," said receiver A.J. Green, who dropped a deep pass near the end zone that could have helped close the deficit in a Bengals comeback bid. "A lot of people are going to give him heat for this. It's not deserved. We all had a hand in it, including myself."
Running back Giovani Bernard, who had a pivotal fumble near the goal line at the end of the second quarter, echoed those sentiments.
"It's not on our quarterback. It's on everybody," Bernard said.
That's a good public stance to take. But it doesn't much change the fact that Dalton still hasn't yet proven he has what it takes to take this team to the next level.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy outlined the problems for Cincinnati on Sunday when speaking about the efficient, mistake-free day of his own quarterback, Philip Rivers.
"It's really about in big games, a lot of times teams lose the game rather than win it," McCoy said. "When you make some mistakes and turn the football over and do certain things, it hurts your football team."
If Dalton "is" the Bengals as Lewis said, then right now, this hurt team needs its ego, postseason luck and big-stage play to change.