CINCINNATI – There might be more at stake for the Bengals Sunday than you think.
On the surface, the 5-10 Ravens at the 11-4 Bengals may look like a meaningless game. The Bengals don't have to win to make the playoffs or even to win the No. 2 seed – they can lose and still get a first-round bye.
Honest! If not realistic.
But ask yourself: What has been the biggest goal for the whole season?
Answer: Winning a playoff game after four straight one-and-dones. Right?
Now apply that to Sunday's game and ask yourself: If I'm a head coach, how do I get my team most ready for facing the Steelers or Jets in six or seven days (if I don't get the No. 2 seed).
Answer (Pick one):
A) You rest your dinged-up starters, including AJ McCarron if his left wrist is still smarting. That goes for Tyler Eifert (coming off concussion), Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), Marvin Jones (hamstring), A.J. Green (sore back), Adam Jones (foot) and George Iloka (groin).
Why go all in? Treat this like the last preseason game. After all, it is the last preplayoffs game, and going into the playoffs healthy is more important than beating the Ravens.
B) You throw caution to the wind and play everybody, with the idea that you want to build momentum for the playoffs, and a 35-3 win over the Ravens might help.
And you want to give McCarron as many snaps as he can get.
We're pretty sure McCarron would vote for Plan B. Here's what he said in the locker room this week:
"Yeah, it's huge," said McCarron, who will start his third game in place of the injured Andy Dalton. "It's just like with MLB - the baseball team that catches the momentum at the end usually rides that hot streak deep into the playoffs. It's big for us to get a win this week and start that momentum into the first round of the playoffs."
But if Plan A - resting starters - sounds bad to you (and if you have game tickets, it probably does), look what Bill Belichick is doing this week.
The Patriots coach – he of four Super Bowl wins - has six players out for Sunday and nine listed as questionable.
The Patriots stand to lose the No. 1 seed if they don't win at Miami, but Belichick is putting his team's health first – and the Patriots have TWO weeks off before their first playoff game.
And there's another consideration to think of: the fans at Paul Brown Stadium. The fans and the team haven't had a chance to celebrate the AFC North title. So hopefully the Bengals will do something special during pre-game introductions to satisfy the fans before Keith Wenning takes the first snap.
If you're wondering what Marvin Lewis thinks, he says he's going all in.
“I can’t control if guys stay healthy. We have to go play. That’s what we’re here to do. Win games,” Lewis said to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “This is not an opportunity to rest people. We have to go win the game and see what happens from there.
“It’s important. Our guys have a great mindset . . . It’s a division game, a home game and we want to win it."
One final thing to think about:
You may have noticed that the Bengals haven't responded to the NFL insider report that Dalton, who fractured his thumb against the Steelers on Dec. 13, probably will miss the first playoff game and could miss the second. The Bengals actually haven't said anything definitive that makes you think Dalton will or won't be ready for the playoffs.
Dalton did say he hopes to have the cast removed Monday, but that could be a striped-orange herring. If he gets the cast off, how long will it take to get him game-ready?
Have the Bengals been silent because Lewis absolutely hates to say anything about injuries about any player anytime?
Or, is it because they already know Dalton needs surgery and won't be available at all? And they're keeping quiet to keep locker room spirits up and potential opponents guessing?
If that's the case, you've got to go all in and play McCarron (and Green and Jones). McCarron needs all the snaps he can get if you want a chance to go deeper in the playoffs.
If all you want from this season is to win one playoff game, to get that monkey off your back, you're selling yourself short. McCarron has shown enough to give fans and teammates confidence that he can beat the Steelers or Jets at home.
Beating the Patriots or Broncos on the road in the second week is another thing, but I wouldn't rule it out. Maybe he'll get the chance. Or maybe Dalton will.