The Cincinnati Bengals went from being a Super Bowl contender coming into Sunday to being a team full of uncertainty heading into the final three weeks of the regular season.
Thanks in large part to Andy Dalton's fractured thumb, Cincinnati was whacked by the Pittsburgh Steelers 33-20 to drop to 10-3. They no longer control their own destiny in the AFC playoff race for the top seed. Here are four thoughts from what was easily the most disheartening loss of the Bengals' season thus far.
1. Never say never
This game had all the makings of a blowout with Cincinnati being on the wrong end of it. You don't lose your starting quarterback, Pro Bowl tight end, and starting safety in addition to already being out with your star corner and expect to keep pace with this Steelers team.
But the Bengals fought valiantly to keep this game within striking distance going into the final minutes. No one would have faulted them had they laid down and cruised to the end of this game, but they gave it their all to overcome insurmountable odds and attempted to win this game.
It's that kind of mentality that the Bengals must keep for the rest of the regular season if they are to clinch the AFC North and win in the postseason. Their effort on Sunday wasn't good enough to beat the Steelers, but it may be enough to beat teams like the 49ers and Browns to ensure Cincinnati at least wins the AFC North and hosts a playoff game.
2. Injuries finally decimating Bengals
It's been quite some time since the Bengals have ended a season without being decimated on the injury front. It looked like that may happen this season after getting through the first 11 weeks without any key injuries.
But it's gone downhill since then with Darqueze Dennard, Adam Jones, George Iloka, Tyler Eifert, and now Andy Dalton all suffering significant injuries. In this game alone, Dalton, Iloka, Eifert, Shawn Williams, Vontaze Burfict, and Leon Hall left with injuries at different points (Hall, Burfict and Williams all returned).
Now at 10-3, winning any of the remaining three games will be difficult without Dalton. What was shaping up to be a season to remember for Bengals fans now has significant potential to end in disappointment.
3. Jury still out on AJ McCarron
As you could expect, AJ McCarron had an up-and-down performance in his first significant NFL action. He finished 22-of-32 passing with 280 yards with two touchdowns and two two picks. He was also sacked three times.
The high was McCarron throwing a 66-yard touchdown to A.J. Green that lessened the Steelers' lead to 13-7 and put the Bengals on the board in the first half.
The low was McCarron throwing a pick-six to open the second half and then throwing a bad pick in the final minutes as the Bengals were driving down the field behind only 26-13.
It was too erratic of a performance to know if McCarron is capable of leading the Bengals to multiple wins in the final three weeks with Dalton out, let alone winning a playoff game. The good news is the rest of the offense and defense did well enough to keep the Bengals in this game with Pittsburgh, which means that may be good enough to beat teams like the 49ers and Ravens down the stretch.
4. Schedule sets up well for McCarron
If you were going to pick a three-game stretch of this season for AJ McCarron to start in, this would be one of the better options you'd come up with. Next week, McCarron gets to face a 4-9 49ers team that just got blown out by the Browns and made a strong case for being the worst team in football.
Then again, the 4-9 Ravens are probably worse at this stage, and Cincinnati gets to host them in Week 17. You could have Mohamed Sanu at quarterback and both of those games would still be winnable.
Again, it's tough to say how good McCarron really is (or if Sanu could end up being a better option), but he should be able to get 1 or 2 wins against those teams. At this point, even if the Steelers win out, the Bengals need only a Week 17 win over the Ravens to clinch the AFC North by virtue of a better divisional record. The Bengals would be 5-1 and the Steelers' best-possible scenario is a 4-2 mark in the AFC North, if they beat the Ravens and Browns in Weeks 16 and 17.