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Make or break: Spotlight forced upon AJ McCarron

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A captivating plot twist to the high-riding Bengals tale of 2015 has thrown the projected course to the playoffs in flux, and now one man is tasked with salvaging the best season in recent memory.

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Who are these cruel football gods, these tyrants of fate? Why must they bring their hammers down upon the Queen City, just as she begins to swell with excitement and pride? Exactly 10 seasons ago, we saw another such occasion by the same kind of vile henchman who wears his logo on one side. The similarities are striking and the shock comes from the scar of the past, but unlike last time, all is not completely lost.

To be fair, all was not necessarily lost then either after Carson Palmer crumpled to the turf and Jon Kitna led the Bengals to a 17-14 halftime lead over the Steelers. He wilted in the second half, though, and that was that. We all know that quarterback is a tough job to perform well. I don't know this for sure, but I would guess that there are more professional astronauts than professional quarterbacks on (or off) the planet and the scarcity of both is due to the immense challenges at hand.

If all that is true, imagine suddenly being thrown into a game completely out of nowhere, unexpectedly, in your first important action. Such is the case of AJ McCarron—the fifth meaningful starting quarterback of the Marvin Lewis era. He is a known winner in the amateur ranks but a complete blank slate as a professional.

In what was basically a full game played after Andy Dalton's injury on the team's first drive, he showed some things necessary to be included among those supremely select humans called NFL starting quarterbacks. He has enough arm strength to stretch the field on seam routes and he looked comfortable throwing the 66-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green. He took his hits bravely when he had to and while McCarron isn't necessarily a stiff, he's also not a runner, so staying cool in the pocket matters for this guy's future.

He also had just a week to prepare against a mailing-it-in 49ers team that isn't likely to produce a hostile road-game environment. The game plan will be tailored to him and he gets a few days to learn how to use the arsenal suddenly at his disposal. Though he won't have Eifert included in that stockpile on Sunday, he still has more than most of his more-seasoned peers in terms of usable parts heading into Week 15.

Perhaps more important than the shiny parts that score touchdowns and get endorsements, though, are those five hulking masses up front—the same five that lined up together in September. The offensive line was looked at as a tremendous team strength coming into 2015 and has done little to counter that argument. Even the most bland backup quarterback in the league can feel good about himself behind trustworthy protection in the pocket and the onus falls even harder upon the pro-bowl caliber players in the group to provide exactly that, but what about running the ball?

It's easy to get the sense that the majority of the football-watching world assumes Jeremy Hill to be the better option over Giovani Bernard. The thinking typically is that because he is the bigger back, he should be given the ball more times and that he can pick up the tougher yards. None of that has been true this season.

Bernard may be short, but he has looked stronger and far more determined than his backfield counterpart when called upon. Everyone wants to put him in the third-down, change-of-pace category where he is to only be used in the flats and underneath throws—which he does very well—but the guy is tough and can run between the tackles when you need him to.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what has been the difference in Hill between his breakout rookie season and his sophomore slump we're seeing now, but from where I sit, it looks like he wants to be a speed back in a big-guy body. There is a finesse element to his game that does have explosive potential when he can free himself up with jukes and cutbacks, but also allows him to be brought down easier than one would like from a 235 pound youngster.

It seems time to commit more to Bernard down the stretch and sprinkle in Hill as a compliment. The sample size is adequate at this point to safely say that one gets the job done more than the other right now. With a healthy line, a backup quarterback and running back capable of keeping an offense on schedule, it's imperative the Bengals show they can win on the ground.

This is a better and more veteran roster than in 2005. They are more than capable of floating to the playoffs with a first-round bye behind McCarron but he cannot be the deciding factor. Denver was put in an eerily similar situation when Peyton Manning could no longer play due to a foot injury. It took a game and a half for Brock Osweiler to win the world over, thanks in large part to a strong rushing offense and top-notch defense. Osweiler looks like a promising prospect in that offense, and reminds me of Joe Flacco in Gary Kubiak's scheme, but I don't see much difference in the caliber of Osweiler and McCarron.

There was an alleged fight of some kind at halftime of the Wild Card loss a decade ago inside the Bengals' locker room, but this team isn't made up of that same flimsy emotional character that freaks out when its most key component goes down. This is a grizzled group scarred by playoff losses and the world's doubt that lashes them at every chance it gets. The expectations of another postseason flame-out have only been accelerated by the installment of McCarron, but those men on the practice field this week are impervious to outside opinion at this point. Their leaders are too old for that nonsense and the young ones take solace from their veteran colleagues.

So while some additional chips have been stacked against the Bengals at a crucial stage of what has been one the greatest regular seasons in franchise history, the plot also thickens to allow the underdog to overcome all odds and shock the world. Rather than the work of an inevitable curse, perhaps this newest twist simply provides more drama to what could still be a storybook ending for those in Cincinnati.