CINCINNATI — Things can turn quickly in the NFL. The Bengals saw the game, and perhaps the season, turn on one fluke play in the first quarter Sunday.
After the Steelers went 80 yards in 10 plays on their first drive, it looked like the Bengals would hold serve. Tyler Eifert made a great run-and-catch on third-and-10 for 24 yards to get the ball to the Steeler 6.
Then Andy Dalton tried a little shovel pass. He threw it right to defensive end Stephon Tuitt for an interception. Dalton made the tackle on the return.
No big deal.
A bad turnover.
Plenty of time recover.
Well, except, Dalton hurt his right thumb on the play. In short order, he was declared out and showed up in the sidelines in a cast. Dalton said after the game that there is a fracture. He’ll see a hand specialist Monday.
The fact that the Bengals lost 33-20 to the Steelers is of minor concern. The Bengals are 10-3 and will make the playoffs. But chances of breaking the postseason-win drought are remote if the Dalton isn’t ready.
“Andy’s going to be out a bit,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
He wouldn’t go any further than to say Dalton will definitely not play next week at San Francisco.
A.J. McCarron, the former Alabama star, is the quarterback for now and possibly the rest of the year.
McCarron went 22-for-32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Dalton’s stead Sunday. It was McCarron’s first extensive action, but Lewis is confident McCarron can handle it.
“The hard would be if he didn’t have the personality he has,” Lewis said. “This kid has a great personality. That’s why he’s here. He’s got the guys in the building confidence. They’re impressed with him.
“Now he’s got to lead us for however long. I’m glad we got him. This is why we got him. This is why we drafted him. This is why we’ve had him here for times like today.”
McCarron will get all the reps this week in practice, but before Sunday he had attempted all of four passes as a pro.
“We’ve been given A.J. some opportunities in practice,” Lewis said. “It’s nothing like playing against a real team with a good defense.”
The Bengals have been as good as they’ve been this year because they’ve been healthy for the most part. An injury to your starting quarterback is most difficult to overcome in the NFL.
The Bengals have to be pleased with the way McCarron acquitted himself Sunday. McCarron made some bad throws. He had two interceptions, but he looked very good at times, despite the absence of a running game and lots of pressure from the Steelers’ rush.
“I’ve got to play better,” McCarron said. “I’m trying to find any excuses. I’m going to play better. I promise you that.”
McCarron won back-to-back to national title at Alabama.
“We played in a lot of big games when I was in college,” he said. “But this is whole new game. College isn’t the NFL. I felt good. No matter how reps you get in practice it’s all based on how many reps you get in games when you actually see the opposing defense . . . It’s going to come.”
McCarron has a quarterback’s confidence.
“If you don’t, you’re doomed,” he said. “I’ve always believed in myself when I step inside those white lines. You’ve got to carry that confidence as a QB. . . If you lose confidence, it can go bad for you quick.”
Wideout Marvin Jones said the club is confident in McCarron as well.
“There can’t be a drop-off,” Jones said. “We’ve got to confident he can come in and lead us. We understand what’s going on. Everybody has to pick up their level of play and level of intensity.”
Nine takeaways from the game:
ONE TO REMEMBER: McCarron’s first touchdown as a professional was a thing of beauty. He hit A.J. Green in stride and as streaked down the right side line.
Green made a nifty move to shed Antwon Blake and Mike Mitchell and score. It went for a total of 66 yards.
And it got the Bengals back in the game, closing it to 13-7.
Green punted the ball into the stands. He usually doesn’t celebrate.
“Things happen,” he said.
DEE-FENSE: The Bengals came leading the NFL in scoring defense. They played that bend-but-don’t-break style to stay in the game.
After the Steelers converted their first five third downs, the Bengals stopped Pittsburgh on three straight drives in the first half. The result was field goals rather than touchdowns.
That meant the Bengals went into the half down 16-7 when it could have 28-7.
DISASTER: On the second play of the second half, McCarron tried to throw a sideline pass Mohammed Sanu. William Gay picked it off and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.
That was pretty much the ball game.
“They swapped coverage on me late,” McCarron said. “Then I didn’t have enough to get out. I rreally trying to throw it over Mo’s head. I didn’t have enough.”
McCarron made the bad pass. But it was a dangerous call. McCarron had to throw ball 20 yards to Sanu, who was behind the line of scrimmage.
DB SHORTAGE: Cornerback Adam Jones was on the inactive list with a foot injury. The Bengals lost safety George Iloka to a groin injury before the half was over.
Darqueze Dennard is already on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
MORE BAD NEWS: Eifert left the game under the concussion protocol after the 24-yard play. He did not return.
He will have to pass the concussion test before he’s allowed to return practice.
BIG BEN: Ben Roethlisberger came into the game 17-7 versus the Bengals with a 87.5 passer rating.
The Steeler offense has been one of the most dangerous in the NFL. Pittsburgh came in averaging an NFL-high 6.5 per play. The Steelers were tied with the Arizona for an NFL-high 409.1 yards per game.
Roethlisberger came out hot. He completed his first eight passes. He finished the half 20-for-27 for 190 yards.
“At one point, they were 7-for-10 on third down,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “You can’t do that, especially against Big Ben.”
CHIPPY, CHIPPY: The Bengals and the Steelers fall in the two-teams-that-don’t-like-one-another category.
That was clear from the start — actually from before the start. The teams exchanged words and shoves during warmups at midfield. Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison were in the middle of it.
The Steelers thought Burfict celebrated Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the last meeting. Burfict denied it.
But the club trashed talk from long distance all week.
Lewis wasn’t happy with his team and the extracurriculars.
“It doesn’t help,” he said. “You’ve got to play in the NFL. You don’t play with your doggone mouth. You play with your pads.”
“We knew they were going to do that,” defensive end Michael Johnson said. “But we shouldn’t have let that take away from our focus. We needed to stay focus on what we were supposed to do. They did that. That made them the better team today, and they got the win.”
There were skirmishes throughout the game and five personal foul penalties.
“It’s alway like that with Pittsburgh,” Peko said. “That how it was when we played them in Pittsburgh. It seemed like they were doing it a bit more late, hitting us late. We weren’t getting calls. That’s bull. Once we retaliate, we’ll get the flag.”
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap agreed.
“It was a normal Cincinnati-Pittsburgh football game,” he said. “They got the best of us.”
BLOWN CHANCE: The Bengals could have clinched the division with a win.
“It’s very disappointing not being able to clinch in front of the home crowd,” Dunlap said. “They deserve it. We don’t take care of business. We’re going to respond and do what we do.”
DON’T RUN, RUN: The Bengals had 33 yards on 11 rushes at one point during the game. Jeremy Hill had 16 yards on seven carries. Twelve of those yards came on carry.
Hill had 98 yards on 22 carries in the win over the Browns last week.