Sick or not, Andy Dalton's right, he has to play better

TAMPA, Fla. -- Andy Dalton was restless.

Here it was, the night before his 60th career regular-season game, and he couldn't stay in bed at his team's posh bayside hotel.

When he wasn't fumbling for the bathroom door, he was searching for a trash can. The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback was doing anything he could to get the illness that had suddenly stricken him to subside.

It made for a sleepless stay, and led him to feeling worse Sunday morning than he had ahead of any game he had ever been part of, college and high school included. Minutes before the teams were introduced, as teammates started streaming for the tunnel, Dalton was hunched over in a corner, throwing up.

As he stood before reporters following the Bengals' 14-13 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he looked more weary and gaunt than normal.

His play during much of the afternoon matched his countenance. Similarly dreadful for at least two quarters, Dalton threw three interceptions before halftime, marking the second time in his career he had that many pickoffs in a single half.

They weren't pretty, either. One came at the end of a communication breakdown between himself and receiver A.J. Green. Another was underthrown to Green on a pass into double coverage and into the end zone. The last fluttered into a defensive back's hands as Dalton tried to muscle a ball out of bounds off his back foot while avoiding a hit.

They were glimpses of "Bad Andy," a version of Dalton normally seen struggling during prime-time games or playoffs, where he is 0-3.

As the playoff push continues and the Bengals look to find their way in the sea of teams not only fighting for spots but also bye weeks and top seeds, that Dalton can't show up. If he does, the Bengals will spend an entire offseason answering questions about why they signed him in August to a deal that could pay him up to $115 million through 2020. They don't want to do that.

So sick or not, Dalton must perform better than he did Sunday. The Mr. Hyde version of himself can't resurface the rest of the way.

And he knows it.

"Obviously, I got to play better," he said, "especially early on in the game."

Minus the turnovers, Dalton's numbers weren't that bad. He was 19-for-27 for 176 yards and a touchdown. Some of his best play came in the second half. He also distributed the ball well, connecting with seven different receivers. After his problems in the first half, Dalton settled down across the last two quarters and simply managed the game. That included hooking up with Green on a 13-yard touchdown pass and finding rookie James Wright on a go route down the sideline on a crucial, late-game third-and-11.

Still, a quarterback earning the paychecks Dalton is now cashing cannot have a turnover-filled game like he did Sunday against the 2-10 Bucs and still expect to survive and advance when January rolls around. Part of his compensation comes with the expectation that whatever he's enduring, Dalton will still perform well.

He doesn't have to be Michael Jordan in the 1997 NBA Finals, but sick or not, Dalton must let "Good Andy" steal the spotlight from its counterpart the rest of the way.