Colts, Bengals have regrouped with young QBs

CINCINNATI (AP) — Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton know all about replacing local legends.

The two young quarterbacks were thrown into the toughest challenge that anyone faces in the NFL. Both had to replace successful quarterbacks who were parting with their teams under tense circumstances: Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Carson Palmer in Cincinnati. Both were joining teams coming off miserable seasons.

And here they are, ready to get their teams back to the playoffs again.

The Colts (8-4) can clinch their first AFC South title since 2010 if they win on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium or Tennessee loses later in the day at Denver. The Bengals (8-4) can close in on their first AFC North title since 2009 with a victory — they lead Baltimore by two games with four to play.

A lot of it has to do with how two young quarterbacks handled their immense expectations, allowing their teams to make clean breaks with their franchise quarterbacks.

"You don't try to be the other guy," said Dalton, who is trying to lead the Bengals into the playoffs for the third year in a row. "That's one of the big things that you have to do. You have to be yourself. You put in the time, you put in the work and let everybody know they can trust you.

"From there on, it turns into how you're doing things, rather than how the other guy was doing things. I think that's part of it. I don't think that he was coming in trying to be Peyton. I didn't come in trying to be Carson (Palmer). I came in being myself."

In many ways, Luck was dealt the tougher hand.

The Colts were coming off a 2-14 season in 2011 and had all the drama about parting ways with Manning. It even seeped into one of the city's biggest moments: Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl that season, with the Giants beating the Patriots 21-17 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Luck arrived and led one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history. He set rookie records for attempts, yards passing in a game and a season. The Colts made an unexpected return to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

Now, it's his team.

"Do what the coaches tell you, and some things it's good to do them the way they have been done if it works," Luck said. "I wasn't too 'anti-' what's been done before, but I do think there is a lot of merit to doing things with your own personality and not trying to be someone else."

He already had a guide in place.

Luck and Dalton knew each other as prep stars in Texas, growing up about 20 minutes apart in suburban Houston. Dalton came to Cincinnati in 2011, when the Bengals were coming off a 4-12 season that prompted Palmer to hold out until he was traded to Oakland.

Even though Dalton had no offseason to learn the offense because of the NFL lockout, he came in and led the Bengals to the playoffs with a 9-7 mark. The Bengals went 10-6 last season, making the postseason again as a wild card. The Bengals lost both playoff games in Houston, extending one of the longest stretches of futility in NFL history.

"From my perspective, if there's a blueprint on how to do it, Andy Dalton is definitely a guy to follow," Luck said. "He has his team in a great position and seems to handle everything with class and very well."

Five things to watch on Sunday:

FIRST GET-TOGETHER: Although they knew each other in high school, Luck and Dalton have never faced each other. They'll finally get the chance in a game that unites two of the NFL's closest teams. The Colts and Bengals are only 110 miles apart. Their proximity is the main reason they play each other during the preseason — 21 of the past 22 years. The Bengals played their first playoff game against the Baltimore Colts in 1970, losing 17-0.

COLTS NEED MORE THAN KICKS: The Colts had to rely on Adam Vinatieri's five field goals for a 22-14 win over Tennessee last Sunday. The previous week, they lost at Arizona 40-11. They think it's time to start playing more like a playoff team.

DALTON'S STRUGGLES: Cincinnati's offense has been highly erratic lately, and a lot of that is linked to Dalton, who has thrown nine interceptions in the past four games. The Bengals also lost a fumble during a 17-10 win in San Diego, so holding onto the ball is the top priority on Sunday.

THE BIG PICTURE: The Bengals are closing in on their first division championship since 2009 and another chance to end what is now the seventh-longest streak of playoff futility in NFL history, with no postseason win since 1990.

"It's really expected that we are going to go to the playoffs," safety Chris Crocker said. "Once you go there it's about winning. The expectations are a lot different."

PERFECT AT HOME: The Bengals are 5-0 at home, their best such mark since they won all eight regular-season games in 1988 and two home playoff games on their way to their second Super Bowl loss to San Francisco. They've got three of their last four at home, with the only road game at Pittsburgh.


AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.