If there were ever a time for Andy Dalton, it's now

We've seen this all before: the unblemished record, the confident postgame smile, the stories touting his development. Andy Dalton is off to the best start of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, yet every instinct to grant him the proverbial "turned corner" is met with his history of running hot and cold.

So what can we say about Dalton after he compiled the NFL's second-best Total QBR (87.7) during the first quarter of the season? Has he elevated from four years of inconsistency into one of the league's better quarterbacks? Or will he crash at some key point in the season, possibly as early as Sunday's matchup against the Seattle Seahawks?

Perhaps we can agree on this: If there were ever a year for Dalton to emerge and lead the Bengals on a deep playoff run, it's this one. Despite a tough schedule looming after a 4-0 start, ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) projects the Bengals as favorites in nine of their next 12 games. In his second season with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Dalton has discovered the long ball -- an important development even if its effectiveness is limited as the weather turns -- and the Bengals have put together a uniquely balanced team around him.

Let's take a closer look at what happened during this start and then try to project what it means for the rest of the season and beyond.

The biggest development is that Dalton is throwing deeper and with better accuracy than he ever has to start a season. He is averaging 10.2 yards per attempt, well above his previous career high through the first four games (8.8 in 2012) and second in the NFL behind the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.

Dalton hasn't simply benefited from receivers making plays after the catch. His average throw is traveling 9.2 yards past the line of scrimmage; his previous high through four games was 8.7 air yards per throw in 2012. In other words, he's pushing the ball downfield more aggressively than ever.

And he is completing those throws with far better accuracy than in any start to the season of his career, as the chart shows. His near-58 percent completion rate on throws of 20 or more yards is exceptionally notable and, if nothing else, will force opposing defenses to respect the deep ball even in games when the Bengals don't use it.

Almost as important is the depth of players surrounding Dalton at the moment. Receiver A.J. Green has been on fire, having amassed the NFL's fourth-best yardage total (417), and the tailback duo of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard has been elite. Bernard leads the NFL with an average of 5.5 yards per rush (minimum 40 carries), and Hill ranks second with five rushing touchdowns.

But the performance of the Bengals' offensive line is probably the most important supporting factor in Dalton's success. His rate of sacks per dropback (1.6) is the second lowest in the NFL and he is being pressured on just 13.5 percent of his dropbacks, third lowest in the league.

Dalton gets partial credit for those numbers. He is averaging 2.18 seconds before the throw, the fourth-quickest release in the NFL. But using ESPN's protection rate metric, which combines pocket and pressure data to determine if a line has given a quarterback more than average time in the pocket, we see the Bengals' strength. Their protection rate is 51.6, up from 50.9 during the first four games of last season and the seventh best in the NFL.

These factors -- a well-rounded scheme, elite skill players and the relatively rare benefit of strong offensive line play -- all bode well for keeping Dalton on an even course during the regular season. Of course, most of us won't cede true progress for either Dalton or the Bengals unless they break through in the playoffs after four consecutive losses in the wild-card round.

FPI gives the Bengals a 78 percent chance to win the AFC North, considering Roethlisberger's injury and the 1-3 starts of the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. They are at least in early position for a strong playoff seed. And as the second chart shows, every quarterback in NFL history to match Dalton's start has at least made the playoffs, and one, Kurt Warner with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, won the Super Bowl.

Last time I checked, no one could see into the future. All we can do is evaluate the horizon. And in the case of Andy Dalton, it has never looked better.

Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.