Has Andy Dalton Finally Entered The Elite Zone?

This has been quite a year for the Cincinnati Bengals. They are leading the AFC North and looking like potential NFL champions. The high-powered offense that was touted for years has finally come of age. All of the weapons are playing up to potential and beyond. The man leading those weapons into battle is Andy Dalton. He's also having a breakout year and looking like a candidate for MVP honors. Has Dalton finally entered at elite zone?

When elite quarterbacks are mentioned, Dalton's name never gets mentioned. The obvious reason is well-known around the league and by fans. His playoff record is a disappointing 0-4. Most of the other well-known passers are older and have Super Bowl credentials to flaunt.

However, Dalton is quickly becoming a hot commodity if you look at the stats for this season. The new-and-improved Andy Dalton has seemingly turned things around and is on fire. According to Pro Football Outsiders, Dalton is ranked No.3 in the NFL, behind Tom Brady and Carson Palmer. Going deeper into his metrics, Dalton's playing style and stats are comparable to those of Joe Montana.

In Sunday's game against the Browns, Dalton became one of two players to reach 3,000 yards in his first five seasons. Get ready for the shocker. The other is Peyton Manning. That's some jaw-dropping company to be associated with. Both are considered elite quarterbacks, hands down.

To make things more interesting, Dalton beat Manning in their only meeting. Dalton haters always talk about the interception he threw, during that Monday Night Football game against the Broncos. Besides that on blemish, the Red Rifle had an outstanding night. His passer rating was 93.1 and he tossed two TD's. He only passed for 146 yards, because of the weather. Dalton also completed 68 percent of his passes. It was a balanced game that saw the Bengals rush for 207 yards. That balance helped Dalton outlast Manning.

Has Andy Dalton
[Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images]Dalton seems to be proving all of the haters wrong and having fun doing it. It's getting harder and harder for his name to be excluded from the conversation when talking about elite quarterbacks. Being in the same company with Manning is an amazing accomplishment.

Peyton and Dan Marino will probably see Andy Dalton in another club with them. With 125 touchdowns, Dalton is 13 away from tying Manning for most TDs in the first five years. Marino is sitting pretty with 168. That's just unreal. Andy would have to go insane and light up every defense from now until the end of the season. But, catching Manning at 138 seems like a possibility. With the Bengals getting "turnt up" for the stretch run, averaging three or four touchdowns a game could happen.

One of the most significant factors in considering Dalton's entrance into the elite zone is his personal records. He is on pace to exceed every stat that he has set in his career. That alone is enough to get heads turning. Dalton's 2013 season was by far his best. That season, he threw for 4,293 yards, 33 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, and had quarterback rating of 88.8.

Has Andy Dalton
[Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images]If the Red Rifle continues on his current pace, he'll pass 4,321 yards, 34 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a season quarterback rating over 100. Those are career numbers in every category. The most astounding being the drop-in picks versus touchdowns.

Dalton is also sporting the attitude of an elite signal caller. No longer are the smaller accomplishments enough. He's thinking about the playoffs and beyond. That's the mentality of a player who wants it all.

"It's a new year," said Dalton, who also notched his 50th career win. "It's a new mentality for us. We've been playing really well and there's some new pieces. For us, we have bigger goals than just making the playoffs."

That new mentality and new pieces may just get Dalton into the elite zone and the Bengals in the Super Bowl.

[Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images]