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Bengals' Andy Dalton: An improbable hero to a devoted Bills fanbase

CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton has been told he should run for mayor of Buffalo, because he'd likely win.

In a landslide.

"I hear it all the time," Dalton said, flashing a sheepish smile. "Walking through an airport or something like that, I still get a random, 'Hey, I'm a Bills fan. Appreciate ya!' Stuff like that."

For the last five months, the daily Bills buzz has been about the three-way battle for their starting quarterback job. However, at the moment, the most popular QB among their fans isn't named Josh Allen, Nathan Peterman or AJ McCarron.

That designation belongs to Dalton, who is preparing for his eighth season with the Cincinnati Bengals. And why shouldn't it? It's fair to say no quarterback who has actually worn a Bills uniform has made a more important play to benefit the team since Jim Kelly was building the road that led him to Canton.

What Dalton did in Baltimore on Dec. 31, the final day of the 2017 NFL regular season that was effectively over for the 6-9 Bengals, was far more than deliver in the clutch. He produced a miracle. On fourth-and-12 with 53 seconds left, Dalton found receiver Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown to give the Bengals a 31-27 victory. With the Bills having won at Miami moments earlier, Cincinnati's triumph not only eliminated the Baltimore from the postseason, it also supplied the final piece to a mathematical puzzle that ended a 17-year playoff drought in Buffalo.

From that moment on, Dalton vaulted to hero's status in Western New York sports lore.

"I know, it's crazy," he said, shaking his head in front of his locker in the Bengals' dressing room at Paul Brown Stadium. "I've signed (many) 14 DALTON Buffalo Bills jerseys. And people are like, 'You'll never have to pay for anything when you go into Buffalo.'"

Dalton gets to see just how true that is next weekend, when he's scheduled to visit the town that arguably has shown him more love than he has ever received in the one he plays. The biggest storyline for the Bills' preseason game against the Bengals a week from Sunday will have little to do with the game itself. It will mostly be about the kind of reception Dalton gets from the crowd at New Era Field.

The support Bills fans have already given him is unprecedented, especially for someone who never was a part of their team. They've spoken loudly with their wallets, flooding the Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation — which helps sick children and kids with special needs — with donations exceeding $400,000.

Last Wednesday, the charity announced it will reciprocate with a donation of its own to the pediatric department at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. It plans to donate a "Mobile Locker" for kids awaiting treatment at the outpatient pediatric clinic. The morning of the game, Jordan Dalton, the quarterback's wife, and another representative of the foundation plan to also make a cash contribution to the Angel Fund, which benefits all cancer patients at Roswell.

Expecting a 'big welcome'

It's the culmination of a phenomenon that began so subtly, Dalton didn't think much about it at first.

"I just checked my Twitter after the game and I was just getting a ton of stuff, like how excited Buffalo fans were," Dalton said. "And I saw one thing on there that was like, 'I'm making a donation to your foundation.' And somehow that caught (on) and it just kept rolling in. It wasn't until later that night or the next day where people from my foundation were like, 'You have no idea how many donations we're getting right now. We're getting a ton.' "

As the amount kept growing, Dalton started posting short videos to thank Bills fans.

"It started at $15,000, then it was $25,000, then it was $50,000, then it was over $100,000," he said. "And then it just kept going and going and going. And now we're able to trace it back to over $400,000.

"I definitely was rooting for them once they were in the playoffs. If they would have won (the wild-card game at Jacksonville) and kept going, I feel like the donations would have kept going."

Even some Bills officials are curious to see whether the sight of Dalton trotting onto the field before the game and/or for the Bengals' first offensive series does, in fact, generate a louder ovation than anything the home team draws.

"We'll see," Dalton said. "I'm expecting a pretty big welcome. I keep getting (references to) that all the time on Twitter. To have the support from a different fan base is pretty crazy."

There were moments during the 2011 NFL Draft when the former TCU standout seriously wondered whether one of those 14 DALTON Bills jerseys would be hanging in a locker for him in Orchard Park. During that year's Senior Bowl, Dalton was a member of the South all-star team that the Bills' coaching staff, led by then-head coach Chan Gailey, guided. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and his assistants oversaw the North squad.

"I knew that year (the Bills) may be taking a quarterback and I thought were was a possibility of ending up in Buffalo," Dalton said. "They were the pick right before Cincinnati (in the second round). They took (safety) Aaron Williams.

"But, actually, when I watching the draft, the TV showed that the Bills were still on the clock when my phone rang. When I looked at it, I was like, 'This may be Buffalo.' But it was Cincinnati telling me they had picked me. I was just behind because of the TV delay."

Boyd, whose locker is next to Dalton's, has drawn his share of Buffalove, too. Although he doesn't have a formal charity, he helped set up a fundraising mechanism for the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association, in which Boyd played in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Boyd's mother is the WPYAA president, and her son shared a link to via social media in response to the many Bills fans who wanted to donate on Boyd's behalf. As of a couple of weeks ago, Boyd reported the association received about $150,000, mostly from appreciative Bills faithful.

"Things just work in an odd way," Boyd said. "God set things up for a reason. I'm thankful to make the play for our team, first of all. But second of all, it helped a lot because it showed how much respect (Bills fans) had towards me and Andy because of that play. They stood by us and congratulated us, because we did something to help them do something that they haven't done in a long time."

Boyd's Twitter feed also blew up with thank-yous. One post was from former Pitt teammate and Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman, who also sent Boyd a text.

"I saw the tweet first and he just said, 'Man, congratulations, bro. I appreciate you doing this for us, extending our season,'" Boyd said. "It just made me feel two times better, because I was able to fulfill my area with the team and just helping another organization do what they've been trying to do, I was real excited for that."

Bengals QB Andy Dalton's foundation buys billboards to say 'thank you' to Bills fans

Playing to win

Before that regular-season finale at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, neither Dalton nor Boyd had even the tiniest inkling they could end up being central figures in snapping the longest active playoff drought in North American sports. If they knocked the Ravens out of contention, that would be a nice bonus, but there were no thoughts about who they might knock in.

"I think our main focus was just, we had a terrible year," Boyd said. "We all knew we weren't going to the playoffs. But, as far as the atmosphere in the locker room, guys didn't look at it as, 'We just got to play this game and then we get all the time off to do whatever.' We looked at it as, 'Whoever you put in front of us, we want to go out there and win.'"

When the Bengals took over at their own 10 with 2:43 on the clock, Dalton projected an unmistakable sense of urgency. He reminded those around him that what they were doing still counted even if they would all be packing boxes for the offseason after returning to Cincinnati that night. "Guys, let's do it!" he said. "Let's score right here, let's win this game."

"We were like, 'If this is going to be our last drive, let's make the best of it,'" Boyd recalled. "We just wanted to score and show what we were about. We wanted to leave the field with a high note."

Three short completions under the Ravens' deep coverage and a pass-interference penalty moved the Bengals to their own 43. Three plays later, Dalton threw a pass into the hands of safety Eric Weddle, but the interception was nullified by a defensive holding penalty that pushed Cincinnati into Baltimore territory.

As the Bengals faced fourth-and-12 at the Baltimore 49, with 53 seconds left and no timeouts, a bit of skepticism crept into the huddle. "When fourth down came, guys were definitely like, 'I wonder how we're going to pull this off?' " Boyd said.

Practically speaking, there was little reason to think they would.

First, their offense ranked last in the NFL. Second, their line had been reshuffled by injuries, with left guard Clint Boling being forced to start at left tackle and right guard Christian Westerman playing in only his second NFL game. Right tackle Eric Winston, a washed-up veteran who had been re-signed late in the year after being cut before the season, was playing on one leg after suffering an ankle injury on the game's first series.

Then, there was the fact Dalton hadn't exactly been lighting it up when it came to long throws. His nine passes of 40 or more yards last season were his second-fewest since his rookie year in 2011.

The Bengals also had a nasty habit of blowing fourth-quarter leads in 2017, having done so against Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Things seemed to be holding true to form against the Ravens, who went from trailing, 24-17, after three quarters to taking a 27-24 lead with 8:48 remaining.

And with the game on the line, Boyd wasn't the first thought as a go-to target. He had recently returned from a knee sprain that lingered longer than initially anticipated, which didn't exactly endear him to Lewis.

'Just complete silence'

Bill Lazor, who had taken over as the Bengals' offensive coordinator after Ken Zampese's firing following a Week 2 loss against Houston, made the only call he could under the circumstances: "All Go Verticals." That meant all four pass-catchers would run vertical routes. Three lined up to Dalton's right, with Boyd in the slot, while the Bengals' top receiver, A.J. Green, was wide to the left.

The Ravens played both of their safeties deep. When Dalton saw that one of them, Maurice Canady, committed to the outside to cover Brandon LaFell while linebacker C.J. Mosley, who after faking a blitz sprinted toward Boyd but then suddenly slowed down, the quarterback saw an opportunity for a huge gain. He stepped up in a solid pocket and threw over a leaping Mosley to Boyd, who had to stop and turn toward Dalton to make the catch. As Boyd turned again to head upfield, Canady had to change his course to pursue the receiver along with cornerback Brandon Carr. When Boyd reached the 7-yard line, Carr reached to bring him down from behind but Canady inadvertently knocked his left arm away while making a futile dive to keep Boyd out of the end zone.

"At first, I just wanted to get the first down, I wanted to at least give us the opportunity to keep the drive alive," Boyd said. "And when I scored, it kind of felt surreal because it wasn't our stadium and I didn't hear a thing. It felt like it was a party that just I was attending. I was excited, I was super geeked, (thinking) 'I just did this, I won this game for us.'

"But I'm looking around and it's just complete silence. I'm looking back like, 'Is there a penalty?' Then I see everybody from our team come celebrate, and I'm like, 'Aw, this is real.'"

Here's something else many close to the Bengals believe is real: The play went a long way toward saving Marvin Lewis' job.

"I think the way that we played the last two weeks (with wins against Detroit and Baltimore) and to knock two teams out of the playoffs was a part of the reason why he's back and why he's here," Dalton said. "After that touchdown, I gave him a big hug like, 'We did this! We can still do something good here.' I think upstairs took that into consideration."

"We kind of had that feeling like he was gone," said Boyd. "After that touchdown, it kind of showed why he's here."

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd celebrates after scoring the winning TD. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

'We wanted to be in the playoffs'

Make no mistake. As far as the Bengals are concerned, "here," as in Cincinnati, is all that matters. Let them celebrate in Buffalo. Let them enjoy that long-overdue quenching of their playoff thirst.

The Bengals made that all happen, but not before taking care of business with a 20-16 home victory against the Bills on Oct. 8. The miracle at Baltimore was a residual effect from a display of professional pride that Dalton and his teammates see as something on which they can build.

"It's one thing to have a play like that and to get another team in the playoffs," Dalton said. "For us it's like, we want to make those plays that are going to get us in. We wanted to be in the playoffs. Obviously, it didn't work out for us last year, but I think, with the preseason and all that kind of stuff, we're getting ready for the year.

"Obviously, there's a lot of good that's come from all the Buffalo stuff and we're going to be able to help so many kids and families and stuff with it. But that's not our main focus for the year."

Still, if you happen to see Dalton when the Bengals get to town next Saturday, he'll be happy to have you buy him a beer or even pick up his dinner tab. The run for mayor? That'll probably have to wait.

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