DENVER – The Bengals may have a bigger problem than probably losing the No. 2 seed Monday night. It's this:
Andy Dalton could miss the first two weeks of the playoffs because his fractured thumb is taking longer than expected to heal, according to an NFL insider report.
NFL insider Ian Rapoport says Dalton's fractured thumb won't be healed for the first round and possibly even the second. The Bengals have not commented on the report.
AJ McCarron's status was briefly in doubt after he hurt his left wrist on his last-play fumble in the Bengals' 20-17 overtime loss to the Broncos. But a MRI revealed that McCarron's injury is a sprain, so he should be able to play through it.
Instead of a bye, the Bengals (11-4) are probably looking at this: a first-round playoff game against the Jets (10-5) or – gulp – the Steelers (9-6) at Paul Brown Stadium on Jan 9 or 10.
"We knew what we had in front of us, an opportunity to get the bye," said defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had three sacks in a stellar effort Monday night. "It is what it is now. Now we're going to move on."
Besides Dalton, several Bengals starters are injured and were hoping for a week of rest. Receiver A.J. Green is playing with a sore back. Tight end Tyler Eifert missed the past two games with a concussion. Safety George Iloka missed the past two games with an injured groin. Cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones is playing with an injured right foot.
"It's tough," Green said. "We have a lot of guys banged up, so we could have really used that bye. All we have to do is go out there and take care of next weekend, and hope for the best."
So it looks like the Bengals will rely on McCarron to finally get them a playoff victory after four straight years of defeats in their playoff opener. McCarron looked like just the guy to do it on the first two drives against Denver – leading the Bengals 80 and 90 yards to touchdowns against the NFL's No. 1 defense. But the Bengals coaches put the wraps on him and hoped the defense could protect a 14-0 lead.
Good observation from WCPO's Ken Broo:
AJ Green five catches, 57 yds 1 TD in first half...finishes with...5 catches 57 yds 1 TD...your best player disappears in 2nd half @WCPO
— Ken Broo (@kenbroo) December 29, 2015
With nothing to lose against the Ravens, let's hope the coaches give McCarron more downfield throws and the same chance the Broncos coaches gave Brock Osweiler to win the game. The Bengals need to build momentum for the playoffs and they need McCarron to shake off that last-play fumble. And when they get to the playoffs, they need to try to win, not just try to hold on.
Here are the possibilities in play for the Bengals:
Most likely scenario: With the No. 3 AFC seed clinched, the Bengals would play the No. 6 seed – the worst of the wild cards. That would be the Jets if they can win or tie at Buffalo (7-8). If the Jets lose, the Steelers get in if they win at Cleveland (3-12).
Wishful-thinking scenario: The Bengals can still grab the No. 2 seed, but it would take a Broncos' loss or tie at home against the Chargers (4-11) and a Bengals' win at home over the Ravens (5-10).
The Bengals should be up to the task, but the Chargers?
No way. Not against that Broncos defense.
That ship has sailed: The Bengals can't win the No. 1 seed even if New England loses at Miami and they tie the Patriots at 12-4. That's because the Patriots have a tiebreaker advantage based on better record vs. common opponents (Patriots are 4-1 against Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Houston and Denver and Bengals are 2-3). Denver can win the top seed if it ties NE at 12-4 based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Craziest AFC scenario: The Broncos could be seeded anywhere from first to sixth except fourth (that's guaranteed to the AFC South champion). If the Bengals win or tie and the Broncos lose, the Broncos fall to:
> No. 3 if the Chiefs lose. The Broncos win AFC West.
> No. 5 if the Chiefs and the Steelers win and the Jets lose. The Broncos and the Steelers get wild cards and the 11-5 Broncos get the No. 5 seed with a better record than 10-6 Steelers.
> No. 6 if the Chiefs and the Jets win. In an 11-5 tie, the Chiefs win the AFC West (better division record) and the Jets win the tiebreaker with the Broncos for the No. 5 seed (better record vs. common opponents).
Notes: The Bengals signed QB Mike Kafka to their practice squad on Tuesday. He was Philadelphia's fourth-round pick in 2010 and appeared in four games in 2011, going 11 of 16 for 107 yards with two interceptions. He was with Minnesota and Tennessee earlier this season. ... The Bengals finished 6-2 on the road, matching their best mark for a season. They've done it four times in their 48 years. ... Cincinnati fell to 3-17 in Monday night games on the road. They've dropped their past six since winning in Cleveland in 1990.