CINCINNATI — Denver hanging to beat San Diego meant, of course, that the Bengals would be the AFC’s third seed and playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But perhaps, more importantly, it meant the Bengals will almost certainly have to try to break the playoff drought with AJ McCarron at quarterback. The fact that the game is on Saturday made that even more certain.
Andy Dalton will see a hand specialist Monday. But Dalton hasn’t gripped a ball since breaking his thumb against the Steelers four weeks ago. To play Saturday, he would have to practice Tuesday.
Chances of that are somewhere between slim and none.
So can the Bengals win with McCarron at quarterback? Based on the Las Vegas line — never doubt the bookies — yes. Pittsburgh was installed as a 2-point favorite. That’s obviously not seen as a lock.
McCarron has acquitted himself well in his three starts in Dalton’s stead. The Bengals are 2-1 in those games. The only loss was to Denver in overtime on the road.
McCarron is one of the few second-year NFL quarterbacks who can say he’s played in bigger games than a first-round playoff game. He played in three National Championship games at Alabama.
That should help — to a degree.
“Like I’ve said from the beginning when I was able to take this thing over, college is college and the NFL is the NFL,” McCarron said. “I think having experience playing in big games in bigger stadiums and it’s a lot louder and the stakes at Alabama are pretty wild, I think it helps. But it’s two different leagues and I’m just preparing for the moment I am living in right now.”
McCarron has had the confidence of his teammates since he took over. The season could have easily gone south as soon as Dalton was hurt.
“A lot of it has to do with us dealing with him every day in practice,” said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, a teammate of McCarron’s at Alabama. “I feel like this team is no different than the ones he played with at Alabama. Him being around guys that actually believe in him is the point. We believe in AJ McCarron.”
Since taking over for Dalton, McCarron’s played a lot like he did at Alabama. He has been efficient, not spectacular. In his three starts, he’s 54-for-83 (65 percent) for 552 yards. He’s thrown three touchdown passes and no interceptions, i.e., he hasn’t beaten himself.
“(Avoiding) turnovers is a big key to success in this league, really at any level,” McCarron said. “I think if you don’t turn the ball over in this league, you put your team in a situation to win the ballgame and that’s what it comes down to. The biggest thing for us is taking care of the football, whether it’s the running game or the passing game.”
McCarron’s struggled at times — the second half against Denver, the first half against Baltimore. In the win over Baltimore, the Bengals did not convert a third down.
That is not all on McCarron. Losing Dalton meant the whole offense had to adjust on the fly.
“We’re building up,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “To start over with a new quarterback, everybody’s learning each other again. From the huddle calls to where he’s going to be — and all those kinds of things. That can be complicated at times, but it’s gotten better and better. We’re excited for the opportunity.”
McCarron’s first real game experience in the NFL came against Pittsburgh. He took over after Dalton’s injury in the first quarter.
He went 22-for-32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 33-20 loss. McCarron is obviously more prepared this time around.
“I feel like I am finally getting some reps, know the offense a little bit more and am more used to it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to take care of the football and being thrown in that game, I didn’t. I feel like we are doing good, though.”
McCarron was asked if he embraced the challenge of trying to lift the playoff cloud over the franchise.
“I think no matter if it’s me or (Dalton), Keith (Wenning) or Mike (Kafka), we want to win,” he said. “I think the whole team, the whole offense is going to step up for this challenge and really prepare hard this week. This is a great group of guys we have; guys want to win games.
“They want to work hard. It’s been a fun year. We definitely come to work this week and get ready to go.”
McCarron obviously doesn’t want to make a big deal about himself. But the reality is, when Denver hung on, it did become a lot about McCarron.