CINCINNATI — Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton wasn’t even in kindergarten the last time the franchise won a postseason game, but 23 years’ worth of futility and frustration will be strapped to his shoulder pads Sunday when the Bengals face the San Diego Chargers in an AFC wild-card game at Paul Brown Stadium.
Dalton is enjoying the best season of his three-year career, having set the franchise record for touchdown passes and passing yards while leading the Bengals (11-5) to the AFC North Division title and a third consecutive postseason berth.
But after subpar playoff performances and first-round exits the past two years, only a victory against San Diego (9-7) will qualify Dalton as a success in the eyes of many.
“People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven’t won a playoff game,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to win. That’s what it comes down to. And for us to get where we want to go, we need to win.
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“For me, we need to get a win in this one,” he continued. “I understand what’s at stake here and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Dalton is hardly the first quarterback to lose his first two playoff games. John Elway, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning each started 0-2 and they rebounded to win a combined five Super Bowls.
Instead it’s the matter in which Dalton has lost that has fueled the skeptics.
In his first two playoff appearances — a 31-10 loss at Houston two years ago and a 19-13 defeat in Houston last season — Dalton has failed to lead the team on a touchdown drive in 23 possessions, going 41 of 72 for 384 yards with four interceptions and a 48.6 passer rating.
But the Bengals are playing with more confidence this season.
Not only is the offense ranked 10th in the NFL as opposed to 22nd in 2011 and 20th in 2012, but the Bengals just beat the Chargers last month in San Diego. Also, the Bengals are 8-0 at home this season and 11-1 dating back to last year.
“This is a confident group, not only me, but this team, this offense and everything that we’re doing,” Dalton said. “We understand what we’ve done the last couple of years. There’s a different mindset now. Guys are ready to take that next step, to get a big playoff win and that’s something that this team needs.
“It’s going to be great to have a home game. I think that’s going to be to our advantage.”
Everything appears to be aligned for the Bengals to earn their first postseason victory since a 41-14 trouncing of Houston on Jan. 6, 1991.
But Cincinnati fans have seen this before. There were division titles and home playoff games in 2005 and 2009 that were spoiled by first-round losses. And even though the team was on the road the last two seasons, there was no shortage of confidence heading into the game.
Dalton certainly looks like a quarterback poised to take the next step, but he’s been in this position before only to regress.
Titans fire Munchak
Tennessee general manager Ruston Webster thinks Mike Munchak helped the franchise that drafted him back in 1982 through a challenging time as coach for three seasons.
Unfortunately for Munchak, loyalty to the NFL team with which he spent 31 seasons just wasn’t enough anymore.
The Titans fired Munchak on Saturday after spending the past week talking about changes needed for a franchise that has not reached the playoffs since 2008 and last won a postseason game in January 2003.
“In the end, we were not able to agree just on the future or the direction of the franchise, and I felt it was time to make a change,” Webster said.
Munchak became the seventh NFL coach fired. He said in a statement issued through the team that he had hoped this day would never come and that he couldn’t express his sadness at leaving a franchise he had been with for more than 30 years.
“My goal as head coach was to do things the right way with the right people, and I felt confident that the results would follow,” Munchak said. “Sometimes rebuilding a team and its culture takes time, but I truly believe we were on the verge of great things. Unfortunately, my vision did not match that of the organization, so we will part ways.”
Munchak had a season left on his contract and was 22-26 overall. He had been with this franchise since 1982 when the then-Houston Oilers made him a first-round draft pick, and he joined the coaching staff as an assistant the year after he retired.
The Titans were 7-9 this season. Munchak had made it clear over the past couple of weeks that he thought having quarterback Jake Locker available for all 16 games likely would have been the difference in the two or three wins needed to earn this franchise’s first playoff berth since 2008.
• The NFL Network reported that University of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are the top two candidates to fill the Cleveland Browns’ vacancy after coach Rob Chudzinski was fired.
• Wade Phillips was fired as the Houston Texans’ defensive coordinator, a day after Bill O’Brien was hired as coach.
• Former California coach Jeff Tedford was hired as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.