Quarterback Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals talks with head coach Marvin Lewis on the field during pregame before taking on the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on September 10, 2012. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI - Andy Dalton's demeanor hasn't changed since coach Marvin Lewis challenged him to become more of a leader, even if it meant going against his character and being a jerk sometimes.
The quarterback's numbers, though, have gotten much better.
The Bengals have won three of the four games since Lewis publicly challenged Dalton to lead the offense and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to take charge of the defense. Cincinnati has won three in a row by at least 18 points — its best streak of blowouts since 1976 — and the two players have given their finest performances.
Lewis considers his unusual challenge a success.
"Their play is hopefully a byproduct of the reinforcement of their abilities that I gave them, the empowerment of their abilities, and the 'at-a-boys' to move forward but take control of it all," Lewis said.
The Bengals (6-5) are tied with Pittsburgh for the final AFC wild card berth heading into a game Sunday at San Diego (4-7).
In the four games since Lewis put him on the spot, Dalton has improved his performance significantly. He threw for 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the first seven games, a passer rating of 87.7 that would be slightly better than average.
Since Lewis' challenge, he has completed 62 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, only one interception and a 105.7 passer rating. His personality is the same, but the numbers are much different.
"You know what? I don't see Andy as a changed player," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "I think Andy is always going to be Andy. He's going to lead by example and he's a very competitive guy, but he's not a very vocal guy. He's not the type of guy that's going to yell at guys for screwing up. He's going to try to correct guys.
"But I just think his sense of urgency has picked up a little bit. He knew he had to play better for us to win, and he's picked up his game considerably."
So has Maualuga, who was often out of place early in the season. He's become more dependable during the three-game winning streak, during which Cincinnati has allowed only 13, 6 and 10 points.
The two of them have been so good that Lewis has rewarded them with official "captain" designations. After calling on them to lead, he started sending them out as captains for the coin flip before each game. He decided to give them a small "C'' on the front of their uniforms before a 34-10 win over Oakland on Sunday.
Lewis didn't tell them about the designation before they arrived for the game.
"It just came to me one morning running that I should go ahead and put the C's on their jerseys and make it known that way and continue to empower them to do the things I've asked them to do," said Lewis, who hadn't designated anyone a captain in two years.
Both players were surprised to see the small letter on the front of their jerseys when they showed up for the game.
"I usually grab my shoulder pads, put them on the ground, get all my clothes lined up, see what I'm going to wear," Maualuga said. "Then I saw it. I took a second to sit there. I don't know — I was in awe. It was sort of like a blessing and an honor. But you've got to put that jersey on and make sure you go out there and lead and do your part."
Dalton didn't see it coming, either.
"I've been a captain everywhere I've been," Dalton said. "To earn that and get the respect of the coaches and Marvin, it's definitely a cool thing.
"For me and Rey to have the 'C' on the jersey, (Lewis) is saying, 'These are the leaders of the team.' He challenged us a couple weeks ago and we've responded well. It's a good thing to show that and put the C's on our jerseys."
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