The Cincinnati Bengals go as Andy Dalton goes, which makes it no surprise they have started to look like an AFC contender now that their third-year quarterback has gotten back on track.
In the last three weeks, Dalton has completed 66.3% of his passes for 1,034 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions in wins against the Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions and New York Jets. The Jets ranked fourth in total defense before getting shredded for 402 yards in Sunday's 49-9 loss.
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Does Dalton have the physical talent to challenge Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and (soon) Andrew Luck as the AFC's elite quarterbacks? No, but Dalton, 25, doesn't have to be them to keep the Bengals on track, given all the pieces around him.
He was 19-for-30 passing for 325 yards and a career-high five TDs, four of them to Marvin Jones. The Bengals have barely tapped the potential of rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert. The defense is loaded, too, particularly up front.
Even two weeks ago, the AFC North looked as cluttered as the NFC East does now. Dalton's improved play is a primary reason the Bengals look like the favorites to win it.
— Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is the logical headliner on the trading block as Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline approaches, but it would take a significant investment to get him. His base salary this year is $14,280,612; any team getting him would owe the remaining $7,560,324 and have to fit that under the salary cap. Restructuring other deals could be an option to add a top pass rusher, even one entering decline at age 31.
Extending Allen, set to become a free agent in March, to lower that cap figure isn't out of the question, either, if he's willing to listen. But only 10 teams had enough cap space as of Sunday: the Cleveland Browns ($25 million), Jacksonville Jaguars ($19.8M), Miami Dolphins ($18.3M), Buffalo Bills ($18.2M), Philadelphia Eagles ($17.2M), Carolina Panthers ($11.8M), Green Bay Packers ($10.2M), Cincinnati Bengals ($8.4M), Tennessee Titans ($8.1M) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($7.7M).
— This shouldn't be overlooked in analyzing Lions WR Calvin Johnson's 329-yard performance: we may be witnessing the most unstoppable perimeter weapon in NFL history. Granted, the Dallas Cowboys will have regrets about how they tried to cover him. (No inside help on the slants? Cushion on fourth-and-goal?) But is there anyone else who creates such matchup issues anywhere on the field? Maybe Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski and Saints TE Jimmy Graham when they're healthy. Neither of them is likely to outrun the Cowboys' entire secondary for 87 yards, though.
— If Texans QB Matt Schaub — who has been receiving treatment for right foot, ankle and knee injuries — isn't 100% when practice resumes after the bye, the decision will be easy: Case Keenum will remain the starter in Week 9 against the Indianapolis Colts. Keenum provided positive signs in his NFL debut against the Chiefs and throws the best deep ball of the Texans' quarterbacks. Even if Schaub is healthy, coach Gary Kubiak likely will evaluate both QBs in practice and still could turn to Keenum for a division game, at home, on national TV, that's a must-win if the Texans are going to save their season.
— Not enough has been said about Seattle Seahawks DE Chris Clemons' return from left knee reconstruction. Injured in the same playoff game as Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, Clemons returned in Week 3 and has 3½ sacks through five games — a greater impact than teammate Bruce Irvin, who now is playing linebacker and has one sack in three games back from suspension.
343 — Career TD passes for New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, passing Fran Tarkenton for fourth all time, behind Brett Favre (508), Peyton Manning (465) and Dan Marino (420).
329 — Receiving yards in Sunday's win over the Cowboys for Lions WR Calvin Johnson, second-most in a single game in NFL history. Flipper Anderson of the Rams had 336 in an overtime win over Saints on Nov. 26, 1989.
125:21 — TD drought, in minutes and seconds, for the Philadelphia Eagles before LB Najee Goode recovered an errant long snap and plopped into the end zone in the fourth quarter vs. the New York Giants.
93 — Yards on Oakland Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor's first-quarter TD vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, the longest run by a QB in NFL history.
30, 57 — Age (years, days) of Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, the youngest to reach 800 receptions after he had four vs. the Atlanta Falcons. The previous youngest was Dallas Cowboys TE Jason Witten (30 years, 238 days).
30 — Wins in 40 regular-season games for San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Only George Seifert (36 games), Chuck Knox (38) and Ted Marchibroda (38) did it faster.
14 — Consecutive wins in home games against division opponents by the New England Patriots, the fifth-longest streak since 1970, after beating the Miami Dolphins.
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TAKEAWAYS (Home team in caps. Winner in bold)
Dallas 30: Credit Monte Kiffin's Lions' defense for forcing four turnovers to make it a game. The finish notwithstanding, it was the offense that let down the Cowboys.
DETROIT 31: Lions QB Matthew Stafford's TD plunge to cap the winning drive with no timeouts took guts after bounce back from two early INTs. was even better.
San Francisco 42: The 49ers offense can do more than run with QB Colin Kaepernick, but why bother when the defense can't catch him?
JACKSONVILLE 10: And is it too late for Roger Goodell to pull the plug on the Jags' next three scheduled trips to London
Cleveland 17: The Browns' pass rush came up with six sacks. QB Jason Campbell took only one. It still wasn't enough.
KANSAS CITY 23: Make it three one-score wins for the 8-0 Chiefs, who next go on the road to Buffalo and Denver.
Miami 17: Coming unglued after halftime in a fourth loss in a row was bad enough for the Dolphins, but losing WR Brandon Gibson (knee) just made it worse.
NEW ENGLAND 27: Patriots QB Tom Brady's meat hammer of a throwing hand was only good for 116 yards. But the defense turned the game.
Buffalo 17: The Bills' offense desperately needs a healthy, effective RB C.J. Spiller. Getting back QB E.J. Manuel wouldn't hurt too.
NEW ORLEANS 35: Even with foot pain, Saints TE Jimmy Graham is a red-zone nightmare -- not that QB Drew Brees can't light it up without him.
N.Y. Giants 15: Give the Giants' defense credit for pitching another 60-minute shutout. Who says settling for field goals isn't good enough?
PHILADELPHIA 7: Another QB injury, another anemic offensive showing for the Eagles. It wasn't supposed to be easy for rookie coach Chip Kelly in Year 1, was it?
Pittsburgh 18: Failure to run makes Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (five sacks) a sitting duck. The Steelers averaged 1.8 yards a carry. Big Ben took five sacks.
OAKLAND 21: Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor ran for more yards (93) on his early TD than he threw all day. But the late Al Davis would be smiling again.
N.Y. Jets 9: So much for Rex Ryan's dominant Jets defense. QB Geno Smith's two pick-sixes — his 15th and 16th turnovers — only added to the embarrassment.
CINCINNATI 49: Who is Bengals WR Marvin Jones? The long-levered fifth-round pick out of Cal last year had four TDs in the rout.
Atlanta 13: Without his top two receivers, Falcons QB Matt Ryan needed to elevate the offense. Instead, he tossed four picks. They look cooked.
ARIZONA 27: The Cardinals defense sacked Ryan four times and hit him seven more. But RB Andre Ellington was the star of the show.
Washington 21: Giving up 38 unanswered points was painful for the Redskins, although predictable. The "D" is terrible. QB Robert Griffin III got nicked late.
DENVER 45: This is what makes the Broncos so scary: they can sleepwalk for 35 minutes and still have the firepower to win big.
Green Bay 44: QB Aaron Rodgers is operating on another level. His two TD passes to WR Jordy Nelson were as good as it gets.
MINNESOTA 31: At least an infectious disease hasn't hit the team — not including total ineptitude on offense and defense.
Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams, 8:40 p.m. ET, ESPN
The St. Louis Rams entered the season with reason to believe they could end an eight-year playoff drought. Those hopes now hang by a thread, with starting QB Sam Bradford (knee) done for the season and journeyman Kellen Clemens set to start in his place against the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks, who have had 11 days to prepare.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.
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