CLEVELAND - This was going to be the season in which Andy Dalton would come of age as a NFL quarterback.
The struggles that plagued him in his first two seasons would give way to consistency and more wins for the Bengals, who have haven't won a playoff game since 1990. All he needed, it was assumed, were a few more games under his belt.
Here we are in Week 11 of the season and Dalton has an average passer rating of 86.7. He's thrown three interceptions in each of the last two games and the Bengals have lost two straight in slipping to 6-4.
The passer rating is 19.9 points lower than the rating achieved in two starts and mop-up duty of another game for Browns quarterback Jason Campbell. With the teams meeting Sunday in a crucial AFC North Division game at Paul Brown Stadium, the big edge that was supposed to go the way of the Bengals might not work out that way.
No one in Cincinnati has written or said that Dalton might not be the long-term answer, but you can bet there are insinuations. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis expressed his belief in Dalton this week.
"We've had some turnovers, and that's the important thing," Lewis said. "Sometimes when you have turnovers it looks bad on the quarterback, but we have to make sure everybody is doing the right things. For us to improve as a football team we have to take better care of the football, and that means execution by all 11 players on offense."
The preseason predictions concerning Dalton appeared to be coming true until recent games. Through the first eight games he had thrown 16 touchdown passes compared to six interceptions in leading the Bengals to a 6-2 record.
Things unraveled the last two games in losses to the Dolphins and Ravens. Dalton isn't sure exactly where to put a finger on his struggles.
"I don't think there's one thing that's stopped what we've been doing," Dalton said. "We just have to make more plays. I have to be better and make more accurate throws and give our guys a chance to make plays."
Based on recent games, you could make the argument that the Browns have the advantage at quarterback. Campbell was sharp in a loss to the Chiefs and a 24-18 win over the Ravens, the latter performance earning him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Campbell is enjoying the ride, perhaps not sure if or how long it will last.
"It does make you hungrier," Campbell said of being out of the starter's limelight since the midpoint of the 2011 season. "At the same time I think going through that you look back and say, 'Why stress so much? Why put so much pressure on yourself because at the end of the day things are going to happen and things are going to be done.' Sometimes it's out of your control.
"It's time for me to start enjoying myself and go out there and play football and not worry about things you can't control. It was tough being a starter and losing your job to injury (in Oakland). It's a hard pill to bite, but at the same time it's made me a lot stronger."
Strong enough to carry the Browns to their second victory of the season over the Bengals? Dalton figures what happens in the first quarter will tell the story.
"We've got to start fast," Dalton said. "That's something we really didn't do (in the first game), and for this team it's not that we're not playing hard, it's just that a couple things didn't go our way. We've got to make some big plays, tough catches, make guys miss in the run game. They're a good defense, and we have to be at our best."
This is Dalton's chance to show that he is the man in Cincinnati.