The Cincinnati Bengals notched their 11th win of the season, thanks to their 24-14 victory against the San Francisco 49ers.
A fifth-straight playoff berth was also clinched as Cincy will be part of the NFL's postseason once again. While it may be without Andy Dalton, it was clear this team under AJ McCarron is still capable of making some noise.
Here are four thoughts from the Bengals' win over the 49ers.
1. Unusual Plays Power Defense
With the offense being a mash unit coming into this game, the Bengals' defense badly needed a great game. While many of the usual suspects played well, it was a number of uncommon contributions that helped the defense keep San Francisco grounded.
Carlos Dunlap blocked a field goal late in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the win for Cincy. He also forced a crucial fumble late in the second quarter that led to the Bengals' first score:
Carlos Dunlap forces the fumble and returns it 21 yards to the SF-11. https://t.co/qdADUclY1U— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
The blocked field goal was Dunlap's second in three weeks; he also blocked one in Cleveland.
We know how good Vontaze Burfict is, but even he made several big plays he rarely makes. He picked up a key first-half sack that led to a punt and subsequent touchdown drive. He then picked off Blaine Gabbert before the offense converted the turnover into another score as Cincinnati built a 21-0 lead. That was just the fifth sack and second interception of Burfict's four-year career.
Shawn Williams grabbed an interception in the fourth quarter to sniff out a 49ers scoring opportunity, just the second of his career. It was those kinds of plays that helped the defense have the kind of performance they needed for the Bengals to win.
2. 49ers Defense Took Away Run Game
As expected, the 49ers were not going to let the Bengals' ground game win this game. Instead, San Francisco made AJ McCarron be the one to beat them in his first NFL start. The box was frequently loaded as Cincinnati was rarely able to get anything going on the ground.
The good news is, not only did McCarron make several big plays, the defense played lights out and gave McCarron short fields to work with on all three of Cincy's touchdown drives. 11, 20 and 36 yards were how far the Bengals offense had to go on their three touchdown drives.
But you still can't discount McCarron making enough big plays for the offense to convert those short fields into points. He finished 15-of-21 passing for 192 yards and one score with no turnovers in his first NFL start. That's as good of a first pro start as you can ask for, especially since it was on the road against a 49ers defense that held the Cardinals (19), Packers (17) and Falcons (16) to under 20 points in Santa Clara.
While it wasn't always pretty, McCarron did what was needed of him to get the Bengals a win.
3. Dalton's Absence Felt
This is not a shot at AJ McCarron, who played well in his first NFL start, but it was clear the offense wasn't the same without Dalton under center.
The Bengals needed to dominate both sides of the trenches to win this game, but far too often, the offense was getting manhandled by the 49ers' front seven. A big reason why was that Dalton wasn't there to audible the Bengals into better plays against a stacked defense. Dalton's best strength is his pre-snap reads and audibling to put the Bengals in great position to have success.
It's not fair to expect McCarron to be good in this area in his first NFL start, but it is something he must improve upon when teams are stacking the box as much as the 49ers did. That said, McCarron can't take all of the blame for the offense not doing more, especially on the ground.
Bengals linemen missed on far too many blocks and allowed penetration, finishing with one of the worst rushing efforts this season, a putrid 1.9 yards per rush against one of the NFL's worst run defenses.
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, something Dalton rarely does as he has one of the quickest releases of any NFL passer.
Dalton, like most quarterbacks, is often judged by numbers you see in a box score and the number of wins his team has. What people often miss are those extra things (like release time and audibles) that Dalton does so well, and now that he's gone, we're seeing how good he was in those areas.
4. Rey Maualuga Deserves More Praise
The Bengals defense is back to being one of the NFL's elite units in an era where great defenses are hard to come by. With so many teams focused more on offense, the Bengals have consistently put out one of the better defenses since 2009, and for that entire period, Rey Maualuga has been a key member of this unit.
However, over the years, Maualuga has too often been more of a liability than someone you'd hang your hat on. Every offseason featured questions of whether Maualuga would be cut or let go when he hit free agency. But every time, Maualuga stuck around. Now, instead of being a liability, Maualuga has been a strength that's helped Cincinnati rank in the top 10 in nearly every major defensive category this season.
Against the 49ers, Maualuga chipped in with 10 tackles (7 solo) and was a big reason why San Francisco mustered up just 55 yards on the ground. While guys like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Reggie Nelson deserve much of the praise, Maualuga deserves some as well as he shows why the Bengals signed him to an extension this past offseason.