As CBS Sports' Will Brinson writes, it's hard to see the Bengals making a deep playoff run if they have to go with backup AJ McCarron the rest of the way:
McCarron's play was admirable given the circumstances, but he's clearly a major step down from Dalton, who was playing the best football of his career and who is now likely to miss an extended period of time (we'll know more Monday after he visits a surgeon, but the early best-case prognosis has him maybe getting back for the playoffs). SportsLine.com's projection model gives the Bengals just a 1.5 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl without him.
Former Bengals kicker and current CBS writer John Breech tried to keep it light on his former team by giving them a C grade for their performance against the Steelers.
It's almost impossible to grade the Bengals for this game because they lost Andy Dalton to a thumb injury after just one offensive series. AJ McCarron wasn't horrible in relief of Dalton, but he definitely didn't help things with a pick-six on the second play of the third quarter. If Dalton's injury is serious, the Bengals 2015 season could end how their previous four seasons have ended: With a first-round loss in the playoffs.
Speaking of Dalton's injured, thumb, Adam Schefter had an interesting tweet regarding how long Dalton may be out:
In speaking with @jocktodoc, he believes Bengals QB Andy Dalton is out a minimum of four weeks, with six weeks more likely.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 14, 2015
This was not only a costly injury for the Bengals' playoff hopes, but Dalton's wallet as well:
If Andy Dalton is out for season, it's costly. He'll have no shot at a salary escalator worth at least $5M since he won't hit 80% playtime.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) December 14, 2015
Peter King of the Monday Morning Quarterback wonders if the Bengals will be able to survive without Dalton and if there will be enough time between now and the Bengals' first playoff game for Dalton to make it back.
The first playoff weekend is 26 days away; the second playoff weekend, should Cincinnati get a bye, is 33 days away. If the Bengals hang on to win the AFC North, will there be enough time for Dalton’s fracture to heal in an area so important to throwing the ball?
We shall see. For now the Bengals have a two-game lead and need one win in their final three games—at Niners, at Broncos, Ravens at home—to wrap up the division. Sounds like a cinch, except when you consider that Dalton’s backup, A.J. McCarron, has never started an NFL game. He started 40 in college, however, at the highest level. McCarron was 36-4 for Alabama, and you can bet Jackson will imbue his offense this week with a confidence borne of demonstrated ability in big college games.
While McCarron had a promising college career, it's still not enough for King to feel good about the Bengals' chances going forward if it is McCarron who starts the rest of the season.
But there’s a reason he lasted until the fifth round of the 2014 draft. He doesn’t have a particularly strong arm—he floated a ball to the sideline Sunday that the Steelers’ William Gay intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He’s OK athletically. What McCarron will need Sunday against the Niners are options, particularly in short and intermediate areas. And with ace tight end Tyler Eifert in the NFL concussion protocol, that could be a problem. Eifert has been a perfect middle-of-the-field security blanket for Dalton, who has fed him for 12 touchdowns.
Oh, and there's that monkey in the room of every Alabama quarterback who's started an NFL game since 1987:
NERD NOTES: AJ McCarron will attempt to become the first Alabama QB to win an NFL game since Jeff Rutledge in 1987. pic.twitter.com/q7CFdoXTS5— Mike & Mike (@MikeAndMike) December 14, 2015
As Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus bluntly put it, "The Bengals entered Week 13's matchup with the Steelers as arguably the AFC's best team. They left it as no longer a lock to win the division."
Nancy Armour of USA Today may have painfully summed it up best for the Bengals in that their luck may finally have run out this season.
The most important element for a championship-caliber NFL team can't be picked up in the draft or acquired via a trade. It's impossible to quantify on a stat sheet. It won't be found on the game tape, either, no matter how many times it's replayed. It's called luck. And the Cincinnati Bengals ran out of it at the most inopportune time.
Armour also notes specifically how luck and health helped the Bengals jump out to a 10-2 start, even if injuries are piling up at the worst possible time.
But as important as any of that, Cincinnati has had the benefit of good health. According to STATS Inc., the Bengals (62) were second only to the Miami Dolphins (55) in terms of games missed because of injury after Week 13. The next-closest team, the Broncos, are at 85.
The Bengals also are tied with the Dolphins for fewest players currently on injured reserve, each having three.
While the loss of Dalton is the biggest story, star tight end Tyler Eifert leaving with a concussion also helped cripple the Bengals offense. Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report pegged Eifert as a player who will be critical to the Bengals' season going forward with Dalton out and McCarron needing a security blanket.
Entering Sunday, Eifert was Dalton's most dependable situational receiver. Eifert produced 10 third-down conversions on 17 third-down pass attempts this season. In the red zone, he has delivered 11 touchdowns on 17 targets.
Before leaving the Steelers game Sunday with a concussion, Eifert turned a tight end screen into a 24-yard conversion on 3rd-and-10. After he left, McCarron drove the Bengals to the 8-yard line but had to settle for a field goal after a sack.
As bleak as things look for the Bengals with Dalton out, upcoming 49ers and Ravens games should allow them to reach 12 wins, while the Broncos' loss to the Raiders keeps the window to a first-round bye (or more) open.
Dalton can still return and flip the Bengals' tired playoff script. It's up to Eifert to get healthy and give McCarron a security blanket—and a chance at beating a good opponent—until Dalton returns.
In his Sunday winners and losers column, Yahoo Sports' Frank Schwab couldn't help but tab Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis among his biggest losers, though it was mostly because of Lewis' rotten luck with major injuries affecting his team come playoff time.
You have to feel bad for the Cincinnati Bengals coach. Maybe he wasn’t going to get that elusive playoff win this year — they might not have beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers or Kansas City Chiefs or whoever they will face first even with Andy Dalton — but now he’s probably stuck trying to get it with his backup quarterback.
The good news is the Bengals defense played well Sunday, all things considered, and that was thanks in large part to defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, as Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo points out:
Bengals defensive linemen, Carlos Dunlap (+3.3) and Geno Atkins (+3.4), continued their strong play, both against the run and rushing the passer. Dunlap jumped the snap for his 12th sack of the season, while Atkins picked up a hit and four hurries on 34 rushes, including one pressure that saw him hit Roethlisberger’s arm. In the run game, both players had the offensive line moving backwards with Dunlap owning TE Heath Miller on the edge multiple times and Atkins gave both guards all they could handle, particularly his play against LG Ramon Foster at the 8:35 mark of the second quarter.
In an ironic twist of fate, Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert decided to make fun of the Bengals' playoff woes following his team's win.
All I want for Christmas is the bengals. Would love to see them in the playoffs where they choke. The talking is done between the lines— Marcus Gilbert (@MarcusGilbert88) December 14, 2015
The irony there is, as Dan Hoard points out, Gilbert has never tasted postseason success either:
Marcus Gilbert has appeared in two playoff games, losing both. In one of them the other team's quarterback was Tim Tebow— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) December 14, 2015
There's no question this is going to be very tough for the Bengals to overcome, but the good news is guys like Mohamed Sanu have the right mentality:
Tough times don't last.. Tough people do..— Mohamed Sanu Sr. (@Mo_12_Sanu) December 14, 2015