CINCINNATI -- An argument could be made that the outcome of the Cincinnati Bengals' Sunday afternoon wild-card round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts could come down to how well Andy Dalton plays.
Essentially, the big question is: Which Dalton will show up?
Will it be the one who began this season completing passes at a 62.5 percent or better clip through the first five games? Or the one who mustered a meek 2.0 passer rating in prime time against Cleveland? Will we see the quarterback who threw three touchdowns without an interception at New Orleans? Or the one who has an 0-3 playoff record with one touchdown and six picks in three postseason starts?
That's the $115 million-dollar question.
Based on what they've seen in practices and the locker room this week, Dalton's teammates are confident they'll see a winning quarterback this weekend.
"I expect a big game from him," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said Thursday. "I like the way he's been practicing. He's had a great week of practice and [Friday] is going to be the icing on the cake. So we've got to go out there and make sure we do everything right [Friday] and execute and get all the finite details of the game plan. I'm excited and really looking forward to seeing Andy play."
Those who have followed the Bengals the last three postseasons know all too well that winning a playoff game remains among the biggest giants for Dalton to knock down. Earlier this season, he ended the narrative that he couldn't win at Baltimore. He put a brief halt to the notion he couldn't win in prime time, claiming a win over Denver on a Monday night. He also led the Bengals to its first 3-0 road trip (Weeks 11-13) in franchise history.
So there are reasons for the Bengals to be optimistic about their starting signal-caller's playoff run this year.
"I expect a winning quarterback, period," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson succinctly said earlier this week. "It's winning time."
Dalton and the Bengals could use the help from their running game. Hill finished the regular season with 1,124 rushing yards, five shy of tying Corey Dillon for the franchise's single-season rookie rushing record. That number is most impressive because it wasn't until Week 9 that Hill's role expanded following an injury to previous starter Giovani Bernard. Since Week 9, Hill leads all rushers in yards with 929.
It will be interesting to see what the Bengals do on their first two drives Sunday. In their dominating 30-0 win at Cleveland last month, they ran the ball 11 times on their first 22 plays, including the first four plays of the game. All four were handoffs to Hill.
In their last two games, the Bengals' second drives have been capped with interceptions on balls that were either too high for their intended target (A.J. Green) or thrown into double coverage at a time when Dalton and Green had a miscommunication.
Regardless what they do at the start of Sunday's game, it's clear the Bengals plan to obey their leader's every command.
"I expect Andy to be Andy Dalton," receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "He's a very good quarterback and he knows how to command his offense, and knows how to run this offense. We're all going to follow him and he's going to take us where we need to go."