When Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was drafted in the second round three years ago, his arrival was accompanied by many questions surrounding a lack of ideal size and arm strength.
Much like Dalton, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had to deal with critics. Specifically, whether his game would translate from small-school Delaware when he was drafted in the first round six years ago.
Now, Dalton has launched a similar career route to Flacco. Both quarterbacks started in their rookie seasons and both have gone on to reach the playoffs every year since entering the NFL.
Heading into Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium, Dalton is emerging as an increasingly dangerous passer for the AFC North's first-place Bengals. Dalton continues to chase something Flacco achieved last season when he orchestrated the Ravens' Super Bowl victory with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the playoffs.
"There are definitely some things that are very similar to how our careers have gone and how things have started," Dalton said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "Hopefully, I can do what he did last year. It was big for him to come in with a lot of people doubting him and a lot of people saying all this stuff, and for him to go out and lead them to the Super Bowl. I think there are some similarities to how our careers have been."
The success arcs of Dalton and Flacco have swerved in different directions this season, though.
While Dalton has spearheaded the 6-3 Bengals' ascension, Flacco's offense has regressed since his stellar postseason run. He's completed just 59.4 percent of his throws for 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 79.3 passer rating to rank 24th among NFL quarterbacks.
"It's tough in the NFL to go out there and try to be Superman," Flacco said. "It's just impossible to do that. It's frustrating when you're running off the field and you're not getting first downs and you're not scoring points.
"We've got to be better in other parts of our game in order to overcome that in certain times. We haven't been able to get it going enough, and we haven't been able to overcome it enough when it hasn't worked for us."
Having lost wide receiver Anquan Boldin to an offseason trade to the San Francisco 49ers and tight end Dennis Pitta to a fractured, dislocated right hip, Flacco hasn't looked nearly as comfortable or decisive as he did in the playoffs.
He's been affected by one of the worst running games in the league, and has already been sacked 25 times while the Ravens have plummeted to 3-5 in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
"Joe has had a lot put on his shoulders without much of a running game," said Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, an NFL on CBS analyst. "It shows you the importance of a balanced offense. When you lose a great player like Anquan Boldin on top of losing Dennis Pitta, you lose that anticipation and confidence in where to throw the football. It all comes back to trust with your receivers.
"Joe hasn't lost his cool. He's a very level-headed smart guy. I think they have to find a running game for him to improve. So much of successful long-ball throwing, which Joe is very good at, comes from people respecting your play-action fakes. Why would any defense be worried about that running game? That has a negative effect on Joe and the entire offense."
Meanwhile, Dalton has become more and more adept at capitalizing on a wealth of downfield targets that includes All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green.
Dalton has distributed the football relatively evenly, including delivering four touchdowns to wide receiver Marvin Jones during a 49-9 rout of the New York Jets. He's taken care not to forget his top threat in Green, who already has 57 receptions for 862 yards and five touchdowns.
Dalton ranks ninth in the NFL with a 92.0 passer rating, completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,587 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"He's one of the best in the game," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said of Dalton. "His records say it, and his numbers say it. He's playing good football right now, and inspired football. He's matured a lot. I've had the pleasure of seeing [Flacco] do that already. I don't want to give him too much praise, but he's doing a good job."
And Dalton has erased questions surrounding him coming out of the 2011 NFL draft about a lack of ideal size and arm strength following a prolific college career where he passed for 10,314 yards and 71 touchdowns at Texas Christian.
Where Flacco dealt with scrutiny of his small-school background, his size and arm are regarded as prototypical.
"Andy has so much upside, and I think arm strength is probably the most overrated attribute you can have in a quarterback," Fouts said. "The most important one is smarts, and I think he's got plenty of that. The more you play, the more you learn and when you throw you make better decisions for your football team. You can see how both he and Joe are sharp that way and can put the football wherever they need to. There aren't too many differences in these guys that way."
Nicknamed The Red Rifle by Bengals fans because of his hair color, Dalton became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to pass for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns while winning at least eight games. Dalton's 47 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons ranks third in NFL history behind Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52).
"Andy Dalton is definitely playing the best football of his life right now," defensive lineman Arthur Jones said. "You look at him on film and he's making a lot better decisions than he did in previous years."
Dalton is coming off a rough game against the Miami Dolphins during a 22-20 overtime loss where he was sacked for a safety by Cameron Wake to end the game. He also threw an uncharacteristic three interceptions and lost a fumble.
Nonetheless, the Ravens see a huge progression from Dalton.
"He's a quarterback who's coming into his own, he's starting to see the light come on," defensive end Chris Canty said. "He's got that rhythm going. He's really playing well. That team goes as he goes."
While Dalton continues to climb this season, Flacco is adjusting to difficult, adverse circumstances.
"Joe and Andy were both drafted so high and put in there so soon and succeeded, a tribute to them," Fouts said. "It's a nice competitive situation with two good, young quarterbacks. Joe is going through tough times right now. Knowing him, he'll bounce back and get it going again."