Is Andy Dalton just not a big-game QB?

CINCINNATI -- Like many of you the last two weeks, I've been racking my brain trying to think of just what the problem with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton might be. For four weeks in October, he was the class of the NFL, putting up the type of numbers that earned him conference offensive player of the month honors.

Since then, he's looked completely different.

He's 0-2 in his last two games and twice has registered QBR ratings that haven't even made it out of the teens (13.5 vs. Miami two games ago and 17.3 vs. Baltimore on Sunday). Granted, he did pass for 338 yards against the Dolphins, but three interceptions at inopportune moments negated those lofty figures.

Just three games ago, interceptions weren't a real issue for him. Neither was finding receivers in space. It seemed like he was routinely putting the ball in spots where his playmakers could catch it and take off for big yards. Since, he's been leading his receivers a little too far at times, throwing a little too high for them at others, and leaving even more passes behind them, forcing a few mid-air adjustments. So what is it? What's wrong?

Is it a protection issue? Yeah, there's some of that. The Bengals' line hasn't been quite as strong blocking blitzes and keeping Dalton upright. But that can't be the main problem.

Is it a defense issue? As in, have the Dolphins and Ravens been exploiting parts of the Bengals' game that the previous four weren't able to? Perhaps. But don't forget how well Dalton and his receivers negotiated Buffalo's blitz-filled defense and worked around the Lions' and Jets' quick-step, pass-rushing defensive lines. Defense? Nope, that's not it, either.

The most logical conclusion that I've been able to reach is this: Maybe Dalton just isn't a big-game quarterback.

Of course, he'd beg to differ, and I'm sure the Bengals front office and coaching staff would as well. But take one look at his career statistics and it becomes pretty obvious; when the lights get brighter, Dalton starts to fade. In the last three years, he hasn't been as good in games that matter compared to the ones that don't matter as much. (Of course, if we're getting technical, because of the parity in the NFL, every game matters; some stages, though, are bigger than others.)

So why bring up Dalton's status as a big-game quarterback? Because the Bengals are in the playoff hunt again and still seeking their first playoff victory since 1990, and Dalton will be relied upon to win a series of big games the rest of the season.

Let's look at how Dalton has performed in "big games" and how he has performed in other regular season contests. Naturally, the definition and delineation of what constitutes a big game is completely subjective. For the purposes of this exercise, we're calling a "big game" one that occurs either on a Sunday, Monday or Thursday night, features a division opponent or is played in the postseason. Any other kind of contest -- i.e. Sunday afternoon (or in one case, Saturday) regular-season games against non-division foes -- aren't, for the sake of this exercise, considered big games. In three cases, a division game happened to be a night game, as well, so there is some big-game overlap. We've accounted for that in the statistics.

If we use all of the above as our guide, we see in the chart (at the bottom) that in "big-game" scenarios, Dalton boasts a 7-12 career record (6-9 in AFC North games, 0-2 in the playoffs and 1-1 in non-division night games). He also has a 57 percent completion rating, and a combined 4,251 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and 55 sacks. He also has an average QBR of 22.2 in those 19 games, and an average passer rating of 62.5.

As for the other 25 games, the Saturday and Sunday afternoon non-division games, Dalton boasts an 18-7 career record. He also has a 63.6 percent completion rating, and a combined 6,061 yards, 47 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and 47 sacks. His average QBR in those games is 65.4, and his average passer rating is 93.7.

When the stage isn't so big, Dalton is downright stellar.

Dalton's career statistics suggest that in "big games," he's not as accurate, doesn't throw as often for touchdowns, throws interceptions at a higher rate and gets sacked slightly more often than he does in other games. Sacks and interceptions could very easily be attributed to the failures of those around him and are not just Dalton-specific problems. Breakdowns in protection, route-running and coverage could impact them, too. If that's the case, though, it means that across the last three seasons, the Bengals' offense hasn't been a big-game offense.

It's never good for a quarterback when his offense struggles and his team loses games. All the blame, rightly or wrongly, gets steered his direction.

"He is the offense, he runs the offense. When we're going good, he gets all the credit," coach Marvin Lewis said. "When we're not as good as we should be, it's us that need to be fixed. He had some plays he could have done better like everybody did, including the head coach."

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, a former quarterback himself, knows Dalton hasn't been as sharp lately, but he's remaining patient.

"When you're playing a 16-game schedule against a different defense every week, they give you different problems and you are going to have your struggles. You're not going to put Hall of Fame numbers up every week unless you are a Hall of Famer," Gruden said.

Until Dalton starts performing better in big games, he and the Hall of Fame won't be synonymous.