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Entering playoffs, Bengals learn they can't mask Andy Dalton

PITTSBURGH -- Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson … and Andy Dalton.

All seven have something important in common, yet the last one, in one big way, is not like the others.

If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to buck history and win a playoff game, they will need him to be. If they are going to win multiple playoff games across these next five weeks, as they so desperately hope to do, Dalton must be just like them.

Good teams rely on good quarterbacks.

By playoff standards, you can't say Cincinnati has one of those right now.

Dalton proved Sunday night in a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field -- just as he often has this season and across the previous three -- that he still has a ways to go before he can consider himself among the best at his position.

Sure, he has had a few successes these past four seasons. With 40 regular-season wins for an average of 10 per year and four straight playoff berths, the Bengals have operated quite well under Dalton's guidance for 17 weeks each year.

But it's in Week 18, in the playoffs, when problems have arisen. The Bengals simply haven't been anywhere near as good in the postseason as they can be, and Dalton and Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green are big reasons why. If the Bengals can't resolve the postseason problems they have with those two -- not to mention the communication issues that have cropped up between the pair in recent weeks -- they could be right back on the wrong end of another playoff appearance next week at Indianapolis.

They've been on the losing side of wild-card playoff games three straight years.

"You have to win now," Dalton said. "We understand that."

It was hard to tell Cincinnati's offense grasped that concept Sunday night after it turned the ball over three times, including twice when Dalton tossed interceptions while targeting Green. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the quarterback has more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) when throwing in the receiver's direction this season.

Before Sunday, the Bengals won back-to-back games against Cleveland and Denver by masking Dalton's mistakes. No one affiliated with the team will publicly say it, but the game plans in those games hinged on easing the pressure on Dalton and putting it on the running backs. Rookie Jeremy Hill paced a rushing attack that put the Bengals beyond 200 yards in each of the two wins.

In Sunday's loss to the Steelers, though, Hill gained exactly 100 yards, and Dalton and Giovani Bernard combined to collect 16 just more. It wasn't a bad rushing attack, but it wasn't a potent enough scheme to cover Dalton's miscues. With the playoffs now here, the Bengals can't solely rely on their running backs to ease the quarterback's load. They need him to play the best football of his career.

They need him to be closer to the seven mentioned earlier; all playoff-experienced quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings on their resumes.

While Dalton may not have the Lombardi Trophy the others do, he is like them in the sense that he's in this year's postseason. Just like them, he has a chance to make it to Arizona for the league championship.

If he's going to make it there, he simply has to show up, perform and play as near to perfect as possible.

That's because in the playoffs, good teams rely on good quarterbacks.