There's really only one thing left for Andy Dalton. He knows it, and he's not afraid to admit it: After three seasons of steady progress, with plenty of impressive performances along the way, he needs to win in the playoffs.
If nothing else, he'd at least stop hearing the same questions, the same criticism about what's missing.
"So you don't have to hear, 'Oh, you haven't won a playoff game' or 'You haven't done this. You haven't done that,' " Dalton said. "Hopefully, we keep winning and they'll run out of stuff [to criticize]. This is a big week for us."
It's big for Dalton in particular. If he beats the Chargers in Sunday's first-round game at Paul Brown Stadium, he'll take another major step forward in his career. If he loses for a third straight time in the playoffs, the doubts won't go away for at least another year.
But this time feels different for Dalton and for the Bengals. They became the first Bengals team in franchise history to make the playoffs three years in a row, and they believe they'll win a playoff game for the first time since the 1990-91 season, all the way back to when Boomer Esiason was the Bengals' quarterback.
For starters, the Bengals are playing at home after losing to the Texans in Houston in the first round two years in a row. They're coming off a regular season in which they won the AFC North title and earned at least one home playoff game.
But it's the way they're playing -- especially the way Dalton is playing -- that gives the team legitimate optimism about what lies ahead.
Dalton still is far from perfect; he was spotty on the road in the regular season and mostly dominant at home, although he did throw four interceptions in last week's season-ending win over the Ravens. But he's showing definitive signs of maturity in his game and he believes the time is right to show those signs when it counts: in the tournament.
"We're really confident in everything we've been able to do," said Dalton, who was 8-0 at home in the regular season. "We understand what we've done the last couple of years . There's a different mind-set 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 something Dalton needs to further legitimize his career.
A second-round pick in 2011, he was the quarterback of choice for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the younger brother of former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden. Jay Gruden has done excellent work with Dalton, and there have been signs of growth each year.
Now comes the true test of how far Dalton has come. And how he does on that test will come down to the nuances of his game.
"Every little thing matters," he said. "That's something you can see the last couple of years -- when you have chances and you have opportunities to hit plays and to score points, you've got to hit them, because every little thing counts. You never know what's going to be the play that defines the game. That's something we didn't do the last couple of years. We didn't take advantage of some of those opportunities. Guys realize that, and you've got to take advantage of it."
The moment has arrived. A win over the Chargers, and Dalton gets the critics off his back. At least for now. But he isn't looking for one win. He wants four of them, with the last one coming on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII.
"Guys know what it was like in the locker room after that game [last season]," Dalton said about their playoff loss to the Texans. "Guys know it's not a feeling that you want. You weren't able to accomplish something that you wanted to. There's a lot going into this. We've put ourselves in a good position. The mind-set and the goals that we had going into this year, we've been able to accomplish some of them so far, and we still have some that we want to achieve."
And there's one goal in particular, the one shared by every football player. The one commemorated by the silver trophy that goes to the winner.