The last time Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton squared off against the Ravens' defense, he left M&T Bank Stadium thoroughly flustered.
Dalton was harassed into several mistakes, including three interceptions, and was sacked five times. Although he finished the Ravens' 20-17 overtime victory on Nov. 10 with 274 passing yards and two touchdowns, he completed just 24 of 51 passes, a season-low 47.1 completion percentage.
Now, Dalton is looking like an altogether different quarterback for the AFC North division champion Bengals heading into Sunday's regular season finale against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
He's coming off a career-high 136.5 passer rating in a game against the Minnesota Vikings in which he completed 27 of 38 passes (71.1 percent) for 366 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I see a quarterback that's getting better, who's still young in the NFL," Ravens cornerback Chykie Brown said. "He's corrected all his mistakes. He's a better quarterback than the last time we played him."
In the month of December so far, Dalton has passed for 1,061 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. He's only been sacked three times in four games this month. Dalton hasn't thrown an interception in his last 131 pass attempts, with his last interception on Dec. 1 against the San Diego Chargers.
"He has played very well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Their whole offense has played really well. They are really well-coached. They have a nice offensive scheme. They've got tremendous talent everywhere, and [Dalton] is a good distributor of the ball. He knows what he's doing. I've got a lot of respect for him."
Dalton is particularly dangerous at home, where the Bengals are undefeated this season and are trying to finish unbeaten at home for the first time since the 1988 season.
At home this season, Dalton has completed 64.3 percent of his throws for 1,786 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 105.1 passer rating. On the road, he's passed for 2,229 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for an 80.8 passer rating and completed 60.6 percent of his passes.
"Most players play good at home because they feel more comfortable there," Brown said. "We can't let him get hot. We've got to keep pressure on him the whole game."
Dalton has passed for 4,015 yards, 31 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, leaving him 116 yards shy of Carson Palmer's 2007 single-season record of 4,131 yards and one touchdown pass shy of tying Palmer's 2005 single-season record.
Dalton has won starts at home against New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"He's done it all," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told Cincinnati reporters. "We just have to do it in the playoffs. That's to be determined."
In order to beat the Bengals, the Ravens are hoping to revitalize their pass rush and prevent Dalton from calmly locating a diverse group of targets that includes wide receivers A.J. Green (94 catches, 1,365 yards, 10 touchdowns), Marvin Jones (46 catches, 651 yards, nine touchdowns) and Mohamed Sanu (46 catches, 443 yards), running back Giovani Bernard (51 catches, 463 yards) and tight ends Jermaine Gresham (46 catches, 461 yards, four touchdowns) and Tyler Eifert (39 catches, 445 yards).
"You have to force the quarterback to do one of two things: either get hit or have a quick outcome to the play," Harbaugh said. "If it doesn't come out quick, then we need to get to him."
Hit the weights, kid
It's been an extremely rough stretch for Cleveland Browns first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo.
The outside linebacker from LSU has recorded just two sacks in the past 11 games after posting three sacks in his first three games.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has already told Mingo that he must prepare diligently for the rigors of the NFL. The athletic 6 foot 4, 240-pounder could use more bulk to grapple with bigger offensive tackles.
"Get stronger," Horton told Cleveland reporters when asked what his instructions are for Mingo. "Live in the weight room, which I'm sure he will, and also live in the playbook, which I know he will. ... I think when he understands the NFL game is not all either brute strength or speed, he'll become a better player just by maturation process."
Clock ticking on Polamalu?
Seven-time Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu is due an $8.25 million base salary and carries a $10.9 million salary cap figure for 2014.
It's unclear how the Steelers will handle Polamalu who, following a strong season, could be asked to restructure his contract or be released.
"Unfortunately, this is a business," Polamalu told Pittsburgh reporters. "The higher-ups make their decisions to take care of their families, and the players have to make their decisions to take care of their families. My intention is to play on Sunday, and we'll see what happens from there on."
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