BALTIMORE -- As a kid growing up in Texas, where football is more religion than sport, Andy Dalton didn't burn to play the game. Because his friends played soccer, he played soccer -- and by his own admission was "decent," but not anything special -- and since the soccer and football seasons conflicted, he didn't play football.
That changed in sixth grade. Dalton joined a stacked team as a wide receiver and, given his soccer background, a kicker. The next year, he moved to quarterback, and he has never played anywhere else since.
Dalton is a quarterback, and a strong one, but he is still a 24-year-old rookie navigating his first season in the National Football League. He is making mistakes, like the three killer interceptions he threw that put his Cincinnati Bengals in a hole they couldn't dig out of on the road at Baltimore on Sunday, but he is showing flashes of the player he can become.
When Dalton figures it all out, when the game slows down a bit, when he can avoid the midgame slumps, he has the potential to be something special.
"He's a guy we're going to have to learn to deal with," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said after the Ravens held on to beat Cincinnati, 31-24.
It is not often that a franchise can mine a starting quarterback out of the second round of the draft, but that is exactly what Cincinnati did when it used the 35th pick in April's draft to select Dalton out of TCU. Four quarterbacks were taken before him -- Cam Newton (Carolina), Jake Locker (Tennessee), Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville), Christian Ponder (Minnesota) -- and only Newton has had a bigger positive impact on his team.
Dalton will not win Rookie of the Year honors. That distinction is going to belong to Newton, who entered Week 11 fourth in the league with 2,885 passing yards. But no rookie quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger had thrown more touchdowns through nine games than Dalton's 14.
And Dalton has something else Newton does not: a winning record.
Against the Ravens, the Bengals had an opportunity to join the idle Steelers atop the AFC North standings. They fell short, in part because Dalton made rookie mistakes at crucial junctures, but they never would have been within a touchdown, with the ball, had Dalton not shown the poise that has endeared him to his teammates.
After Baltimore took a 31-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, turning Dalton's third interception into a touchdown, Dalton completed 10 of his next 12 passes for 184 yards.
He threw a nice ball to wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who slipped behind Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith and was wide open for a 49-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 31-21. On the Bengals' next drive, Dalton threw an outside slant to tight end Jermaine Gresham, who bobbled the ball as he ran into the end zone. Referee Ron Winter ruled that Gresham lost control of the ball as he hit the ground, a replay of the "Calvin Johnson rule." The Bengals had to settle for a field goal to pull within 31-24.
With 2:27 remaining, Cincinnati got the ball back. Dalton smiled and told his teammates: "Let's go. Let's go. Let's go win this game."
He moved the Bengals to the Baltimore 7-yard line, but there ended his progress. Dalton threw an incompletion to Andrew Hawkins. On second down, with Baltimore rushing only three, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs had Dalton wrapped up when Dalton attempted a pass, drawing an intentional grounding penalty.
On third-and-17, Dalton scrambled left and threw the ball away. On fourth down, with Baltimore again rushing three, Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee grabbed Dalton around the legs and pulled him down for another sack. Game over.
When Dalton watches the film, he will know that he should have taken the Suggs sack and not tried to throw the ball in that situation. His three interceptions were costly, too. His first, just before halftime, was a throw into the end zone. The two in the second half were turned into quick touchdowns by the Ravens.
All three of Dalton's picks were on passes intended for Caldwell, who replaced the injured A.J. Green, Dalton's favorite receiver and the Bengals' best deep threat. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Dalton had thrown three interceptions in 65 attempts when targeting Green this season.
After consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Bengals now are 6-4 with a home game against Cleveland next. Then they will play at Pittsburgh, at home against Houston, at St. Louis and Arizona, then at home against the Ravens in the season finale.
There is still time, but Dalton will have to correct his mistakes, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will need to be less predictable with his play calling and the Bengals will need to get more out of their running game, particularly on first down.
No one doubts Dalton.
"He's an exciting guy to play with, a good leader, a true competitor, a warrior," said 12-year veteran lineman Bobbie Williams. "Yeah. Those are all good things. It's like describing an offensive lineman's mentality describing his mentality."
"That means a lot, especially for him to say that," said Dalton. "I'm just trying to be myself out there, trying to get guys going, and guys have responded pretty well."
What Dalton is, perhaps most of all, is a winner. He went 42-7 as a starter at TCU, with four bowl appearances that included a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl as a senior.
"In high school, I only lost one game as a starter," Dalton told me while walking to the team's buses after the game. "At TCU, I lost seven. I've been on some pretty good teams. I'm not used to losing, and I'm never going to be satisfied with it."
Dalton studies religiously, often at home on his laptop with his new bride, Jordan, by his side. Jordan, whom Dalton married in July, sends him texts throughout his games, offering encouragement she knows he will not get until afterward.
On Sunday, the message was clear.
"She said, 'I love you,' and she's proud of me," he said. "All the good stuff."
The growing pains will continue. Dalton said that he doesn't really feel like a rookie anymore since he has started every game this season, "but obviously it's my first year."
It will get better.
And what about that delayed start to his football career?
"Once I played football, I said, 'OK, I probably should've played earlier,'" Dalton said, laughing.
He will be playing longer, though, and most likely will keep getting better.
What I learned from Week 11:
The Houston Texans aren't the only unlucky ones. The Chicago Bears suffered the unlucky break the Texans did last week, losing their quarterback, Jay Cutler, for the rest of the regular season with a broken thumb.
Cutler has been playing the best football of his career, but apparently got injured after throwing a fourth-quarter interception against San Diego and getting blocked to the ground by Chargers linebacker Donald Butler. Neither he nor Bears coach Lovie Smith acknowledged the injury after the game.
It was another solid outing for Cutler as the Bears won their fifth consecutive game, beating San Diego 31-20 at home. During the winning streak, Cutler completed 57.2 percent of his passes for 1,110 yards, seven touchdowns and just three interceptions.
It will be interesting to see whether the Bears go out and sign a quarterback for the last six games or turn to Caleb Hanie, the 26-year-old former Colorado State quarterback who infamously filled in for Cutler in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers in January. Hanie was 13-of-20 for 153 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay, but he has completed only eight regular-season passes in four seasons.
The Bears are 7-3, but with Green Bay ripping through the regular season, they likely are going to need a wild card to get into the playoffs. If the playoffs started today, Chicago and Detroit would get the wild cards. The Bears have two more opponents with a winning record -- the 6-4 Raiders and the 10-0 Packers.
Like Houston without Matt Schaub, the Bears without Cutler are not done. They have a stingy defense and a reliable running game with Matt Forte. The offensive line is in good shape, too. The team should try to hold the fort with Hanie, who has been with the Bears since 2008 and, like Cutler, in Mike Martz's system the past two seasons.
It is unfortunate, but the Bears don't really have any other choice.
The Dallas Cowboys are tied for first. For now. Dallas might sit alone atop the NFC East by this time next week.
The New York Giants' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, coupled with the Cowboys' win over the Washington Redskins, put the Cowboys and Giants in a tie atop the division at 6-4. The Cowboys have won four of their past five games, a streak that they could extend with upcoming games against Miami (on Thanksgiving Day) and Arizona. New York faces a decidedly tougher road with New Orleans up next, followed by the Packers.
It is not inconceivable that after Week 13, Dallas will be 8-4 and the Giants will be 6-6. And the Eagles, well, who knows where the heck they will be?
Tennessee should have started Jake Locker from the beginning. No disrespect to Matt Hasselbeck, but he isn't the future in Tennessee. Locker, whom the Titans selected eighth overall in this year's draft, is.
Locker got his first significant playing time since the preseason after Hasselbeck injured an elbow early in the second half against Atlanta. On his first series, Locker threw an incomplete pass intended for wide receiver Damian Williams, then an 8-yard completion to tight end Jared Cook before hooking up with wide receiver Nate Washington on a 40-yard touchdown, Locker's first as a pro. He led Tennessee on another scoring drive that went 14 plays for 84 yards, to pull Tennessee within six (23-17).
Locker finished 9-of-19 for 140 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. After the game, coach Mike Munchak said Hasselbeck will be the starter when he is healthy. He should go ahead and get Locker some experience that will serve him well next season.
The Miami Dolphins are on fire. I'm not not sure what it means, but since Week 9, the Dolphins have outscored their opponents 86-20 and have not allowed an opponent to score more than nine points. Green Bay has outscored its opponents 125-71 and has held only one opponent to less than 26 points.
Both teams are 3-0 in that stretch. Of course, it is the other seven games on the schedule that separate the 10-0 Packers from the 3-7 Dolphins.
LeGarrette Blount is a beast. He bounced off or shed six Packers defenders while rumbling 54 yards and pulling linebacker Erik Walden into the end zone to get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers within seven (14-7) in the second quarter. He is strong and determined, and he finished with 18 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Thanksgiving is going to be awesome. All six teams that will play on Thursday -- Green Bay and Detroit, Miami and Dallas, San Francisco and Baltimore -- won on Sunday. Five of the six teams have a winning record, led by the Packers and the 9-1 49ers. Four lead their division. Collectively, the six teams participating have a .700 winning percentage.
There should be good football to go with good food.
Vince Young still has some "baller" in him. When Young finally got his chance to redeem himself for saddling the Eagles with the "Dream Team" moniker, he delivered. With the Eagles and Giants knotted up at 10-10, Young orchestrated an 18-play, 80-yard drive that took nearly nine minutes off the clock and ended when Young found his scout-team buddy, Riley Cooper, with an 8-yard pass in the end zone.
Young completed four passes on third down to keep the chains moving, including the one for the touchdown. He was clutch for a team that had folded in the fourth quarter of games this season.
SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE
Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:
You've got next, Gunther Cunningham. And you've got only three days to prepare your Detroit Lions defense for the most ruthless quarterback in the game, Aaron Rodgers. Not to mention B.J. Raji -- B.J. Raji! -- the Green Bay Packers' new secret weapon on the goal line. Good luck with that.
Through 10 games, Rodgers has thrown 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. According to ESPN Stats and Info, only Tom Brady in 2007 and Peyton Manning in 2004 have thrown more touchdowns through the first 10 games of a season. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only Brady and Manning in those aforementioned seasons have more consecutive games with three touchdowns (10 and eight, respectively) than Rodgers, who has five.
Rodgers wasn't even at his best against Tampa Bay, and he was still good enough. He threw double-digit incompletions -- 11 in all -- for the first time since Week 6. Overall, the man is playing on another level. On Thanksgiving Day, the Lions are going to be hard-pressed to do what no other defense has been able to do this season: stop Rodgers.
The Giants' offensive line got dominated. New York had zero run game against Philadelphia, and it's no wonder that Tom Coughlin was almost apoplectic after the Giants lost at home to the Eagles, 17-10. The offense managed just 29 rushing yards and an average of 1.7 yards per rush, with Brandon Jacobs getting 12 carries and 21 yards. The Eagles' front seven manhandled the Giants' offensive line, which allowed three sacks.
"That's as big a disappointment as we've had around here in a long time," Coughlin said afterward, failing to mention another one on Dec. 19, 2010. That was Eagles 38, Giants 31 -- Miracle at the Meadowlands II.
If New York could have run the ball at all, this one last night would not have hurt at all.
"It was absolutely pathetic," Jacobs said of the Giants' offense. "It was the worst I have ever experienced in my seven years."
The Minnesota Vikings collapsed after Adrian Peterson got hurt. Minnesota held a 7-0 lead when Peterson, who had six carries for 26 yards and one touchdown, lost his right shoe and rolled his left ankle as a couple of Oakland defenders pulled him down from behind. Christian Ponder threw an interception five plays later that the Raiders turned into a touchdown. The Vikings had a fumble on a kickoff return that resulted in an Oakland touchdown, and another Ponder pick as the Raiders scored 27 unanswered points.
Philip Rivers is better than he is playing right now. Rivers looked much better than in recent weeks at Chicago, connecting with Vincent Jackson seven times for 165 yards and a score, but he threw two more picks, bringing his total during this five-game losing streak to 10 and his season total to 17. Rivers has a career completion percentage of 63.5, but during the last five games, his percentage is 56.9 percent.
Rivers is better than this, but by the time he shows it, the Chargers' season could be over.
RANT AND RAVE
A player who will be under review today:
Where have you gone, Ryan Fitzpatrick? The man signs a six-year, $59 million contract extension on Oct. 28, greatly improving his $3.22 base salary, and his play drops off significantly. Coincidence?
In Buffalo's first six games, Fitzpatrick completed 66.3 percent of his passes for 1,477 yards, an average of 246.2 yards per game, with 12 touchdowns and just six interceptions. The Bills went 4-2 in that stretch.
In the four games since the bye week and signing the extension, Fitzpatrick has completed only 59.4 percent of his passes for 808 yards, an average of 202 yards per game, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Buffalo lost three of the four games.
Perhaps even more troubling, in the last three games -- losses to the Jets, Cowboys and Dolphins -- the Bills have gone 5-for-30 on third down, including 0-for-12 on Sunday, and have been outscored 59-13 in the first two quarters.
Is the Bills' record and Fitzpatrick's shaky play the result of Fitzpatrick getting a big contract? Has he let down, even a little bit, now that he has hit a big payday? It is hard not to wonder.
"Obviously we're searching for a lot of answers right now," Fitzpatrick said after the game. "We've got a lot of questions why this is happening and what we have to do to get better. We're baffled at what's happened the last three weeks."
After losing 35-8 to Miami, the Bills are 5-5 and have a crucial divisional game at the Jets -- their third straight road game -- on Sunday.
"The last three weeks haven't been fun, obviously," Fitzpatrick said. "I know they haven't been fun to play, the way we've lost, and I'm sure it hasn't been fun to watch. The last few weeks and now this week and going into next week, you find out the character of the guys you have in the locker room. You find out the character of your teammates. Not where we expected to be, not what we expected to do on the field, but we did."
Notable tweets, the @JimIrsay edition:
"Yea I saw Barkley n Luck last nite.and there's others with big time potential..but we want 18 back under center soon/18 now-2012Class future" -- Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, on USC quarterback Matt Barkley, Stanford QB Andrew Luck and Colts QB Peyton Manning.
"It's very possible 18 back at full strength n we take future QB high in draft...it's not necessarily 1 or the other...stay tuned4 wild ride!" -- Irsay, on the Colts' potential strategy if they have a healthy Manning and the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.
"November NFL Sunday,good stuff! Bye-week n Coltsland,it hurts not being n contention4 1rst time since '98, but gracious SupBowl hosts we'll b" -- Irsay, the prolific Tweeter, on being 0-10.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.