For the first time since 2010, the Cincinnati Bengals played without the services of Andy Dalton.
Adding to that, Tyler Eifert and George Iloka sat out while A.J. Green watched from the bench for most of the second half. The San Francisco 49ers looked to spoil Cincinnati's hopes of clinching the playoffs, but, they weren't able to as the Bengals' defense played lights out and the offense did just enough for the Bengals to come away with a 24-14 win.
Here is a look at this week's biggest winners and losers.
This was a performance that Vontaze Burfict won't soon forget. He was all over the field for a Bengals defense that badly needed to step up with the offense having two key guys injured. His first big play came in the second quarter as he notched his first sack of the season and took down Blaine Gabbert:
Tez!!! Sa-sa-sa-sack!! https://t.co/CorDCI0wm0— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
That led to a punt two plays later before the Bengals scored a touchdown to take a 14-0 lead with just over a minute left in the first half. The 49ers would attempt to get down the field for a field goal and get some momentum heading into the break, but Burfict had other plans:
Tez again!!! https://t.co/1zbmnxnqZS— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
That was Burfict's first interception this season and just the second of his four-year career. The offense converted it into a touchdown and a 21-0 lead at the half, and that sequence of big plays by Burfict helped make it happen. This was also the first time in Tez's career he had a sack and forced a turnover in the same game.
Burfict also helped keep the 49ers offense from finding any rhythm.
An up-and-down season, Marvin Jones has been trending upward over the past month, whether it has been with Dalton or McCarron getting him the ball. After catching six balls for 61 yards last week, Jones had another solid outing thanks in large part to his 47-yard bomb from McCarron:
McCarron with a 47 toss to Marvin Jones. Cake. https://t.co/qvRvSJ4ytN— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Jones ended up becoming a big part of the offense in this game as A.J. Green was dealing with a back injury that limited him for a significant portion of the contest.
Jeremy Hill at the Goal Line
It was clear early in this game that the Bengals viewed Giovani Bernard as the No. 1 back and the guy who would be getting most of the touches. However, as has been the case for most of the past two years, Jeremy Hill was the back getting the all-important goal-line carries and chances to score.
Hill converted both of his goal-line chances into touchdowns in the first half to help the Bengals build a 21-0 lead. His first score broke a 0-0 tie late in the second quarter to give the Bengals a lead they never gave up. It came after Hill was initially ruled short of the goal line, but with a Marvin Lewis challenge, the referees overturned the call and credited Hill with the score:
Just enough. Marvin challenged. https://t.co/F3ZRRgbP45— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Hill's second score came with far less suspense as he powered in the ball with 1:17 left in the half to push Cincy's lead to 14-0.
The Jeremy Hill TD. Bengals lead 14-0. https://t.co/XlMcWkg8H1— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
With no Eifert this week, that paved the way for Tyler Kroft to have as big of a role in the Bengals' offense as he may have this season. The Bengals were certain to call a number of safe and easy throws to tight ends in McCarron's first start, which led to Kroft scoring his first professional touchdown, a 20-yard score in the second quarter that gave the Bengals a 21-0 lead.
Bengals take a 21-0 lead on Tyler Kroft's first career touchdown. https://t.co/0lWg1mpmqU— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Kroft finished with three grabs on three targets for 31 yards and the score. Kroft isn't yet on the level of Eifert, but he's certainly looking like he's ready for the role of filling in for the Bengals' star tight end.
The Offensive Line
The Bengals could have used a strong performance for their offensive line in McCarron's first start, but far too often, the offense was getting manhandled by the 49ers' front seven. On the ground, the line was missing on far too many blocks and allowing penetration. The Bengals finished with one of the worst rushing efforts this season.
They also didn't do a great job of protecting McCarron as he was sacked four times and hit another four times. some of those were him just holding the ball too long, but the line still had a poor game overall. This offense should never average just 4.0 yards per play, but that's what happened in this game, and the line must do better for this unit to succeed without Dalton.
Jeremy Hill had appeared to clean up his fumbling issue after not having one in his last 11 games. However, Hill had a big fumble in the third quarter that led to the 49ers' first touchdown of the game. Thankfully, Cincy held a 24-0 lead at the time and it didn't prove to be costly.
However, it may have proved costly to Hill's future touches as he had just two carries the rest of the game. With Bernard playing as well, if not better, these kinds of errors could lead to Hill's role in this offense diminishing.