By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist

Few starting quarterbacks in the NFL have been more maligned than Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton during the past two off seasons.

The fifth year veteran has started every game for the Bengals since he was selected in the second round in the 2011 draft, but has taken the blame for the Bengals’ dismal playoff record during his tenure.

In his first four seasons, Dalton compiled an impressive 40-23-1 record in the regular season. However, his playoff career is far less impressive. Each year as a starter, Dalton has finished with a first game playoff exit, and pundits and fans alike have wondered if he’s the kind of quarterback that can ever lead the Bengals to a playoff victory.

Just how bad Dalton has looked during these playoff losses has snowballed matters. In four playoff games, Dalton has completed less than 56 percent of his passes, averaged only 218 yards per game, and thrown one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions.

While getting to the playoffs on a consistent basis has been a welcome change in Cincinnati since Dalton’s arrival, the lack of postseason success is concerning.

This year, however, Dalton seems to have taken the proverbial step forward. Through the first six games of the season, he has completed more than 67 percent of his passes for 1,761 yards and, most impressively, has thrown 14 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions.

Dalton is on pace to set career highs in completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdown passes, and through the first seven weeks of the season, he leads the NFL in passer rating.

Fans are still coming to terms with whether or not Dalton really has turned a corner. After all, he’s had regular season success in the past, and that hasn’t yet translated into playoff wins for the Bengals.

The Bengals may not win the Super Bowl this season, but Dalton has improved dramatically in key areas of his game to keep the Bengals undefeated through seven weeks. He’s stopped locking onto his primary receivers and he’s spreading the ball around, making full use of the plentiful weapons at his disposal in the Cincinnati offense.

Dalton looks comfortable in Bengals’ Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson’s system, processing his reads quickly and getting the ball off in time. He’s been one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the NFL thus far, due to his quicker release and decision-making.

Finally, he’s been a monster in the fourth quarter. While his big-moment and crunch-time prowess has been under attack in previous seasons, he’s already put together late game heroics this year in victories over the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Seahawks.

As the season continues, we’ll find out just how good Dalton is, but credit the fifth-year veteran for taking a drastic step forward in 2015, and credit Jackson for the development of his 27-year-old passer out of Texas Christian University. Dalton looks calm, poised, and efficient thus far, and has the Bengals looking like one of the most complete teams in the league.

Come January, there’s no reason to suspect that Dalton won’t have a chance to prove he can take this team deep into the playoffs. So far, he looks ready to do just that.

Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.