While it's hard to brag about a win over a 4-10 team, this was a gut-check game for a Bengals team facing a lot of adversity due to injuries to several key players. The most obvious of which is the injury to Andy Dalton, whose broken thumb paved the way for AJ McCarron to make his first NFL start.
Not only did McCarron play well in leading Cincinnati to a win, but he became the first Alabama quarterback to start and win an NFL game since Jeff Rutledge led the New York Giants to a 20-17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1987 season.
And as Pro Football Focus' Rick Drummond notes, McCarron made a big impact on the Bengals' win and wasn't much of a dropoff from what Dalton was giving the Bengals. Though, that's debatable.
A.J. McCarron not only broke the streak for former Alabama QBs as NFL starters by helping his team to a win; he walked away with a healthy +2.6 grade, as well. Hitting on five-of-six passes targeted over 10 yards downfield, McCarron was also five-of-six when blitzed (for 54 yards and a touchdown). It remains to be seen how long his tenure as the Bengals’ starting QB will be, but there were moments in the game (his far hash throw at 14:20 in the third quarter and the go route he dropped in at 8:28 of the first) that suggest he may be able to do more than keep the seat warm.
Peter King of the MMQB went as far as to call McCarron one of his Offensive Players of the Week:
He quarterbacked the Bengals to the playoff-clinching 24-14 win at San Francisco in his first NFL start. The numbers were pedestrian (15-21, 192 yards, one touchdown, no picks), but this was exactly what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wanted out of him: 14 possession, zero interceptions or fumbles, and scores on four straight mid-game possessions.
The Bengals cannot go to Denver and expect McCarron to be the reason they win. He is capable and calm. He's also starting his second pro game. You can beat the 49ers with a little help from your friends. McCarron's success came partly because he knew that, and trusted it. "He knows the type of players he has around him,'' Gio Bernard said.
Denver is a different deal. The Broncos lead the league in pass defense, too. The first-week focus many teams find when rallying around a backup QB won't be there this week. McCarron can't be asked to be the savior next Monday night. He'll need a lot of help from his friends.
The good news is McCarron should get a lot of help from his friends, most notably Vontaze Burfict, who King tabbed as one of his his Defensive Players of the Week:
The fiery outside linebacker, coming off the chippy game against Pittsburgh last week, had seven tackles and a sack of Blaine Gabbert in the 24-14 victory over San Francisco that kept the Bengals two games up on Pittsburgh with two to play. Burfict also intercepted Gabbert late in the second quarter, leading to the Bengals’ third touchdown of the day and a 21-0 lead. He’s one of the Cincinnati front seven players who’s going to be hard for opposing offenses to figure out because he’s such a varied threat.
Geno Atkins was no slouch either on Sunday. He was once again playing at an All-Pro level during Sunday's win over the 49ers, as Drummond writes:
If fans have missed the 2012 version of Geno Atkins (+5.1) over the past few seasons, they have to be happy to see him back to his top form in 2015. Outside of a lull surrounding the team’s bye week this year, Atkins has been on a tear, and his +5.1 overall grade in this game further cemented his place among the NFL’s interior defenders, behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt.
Connor Orr of NFL.com was impressed with how Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson remained agressive in his play-calling, even with a backup quarterback and leading by three scores in the second half:
Hue Jackson insisted that he wasn't going to cut down the playbook on AJ McCarron, and while we'll never know if he was telling the whole truth -- the Bengals were up by 24 points early in the third quarter -- Jackson did allow his young backup to go deep. McCarron throws a nice long ball, and connected on chunk plays to both AJ Green and Marvin Jones, which kept the 49ers out of the box for a good portion of the game. It helps that Jackson might very well be the best play-caller in football right now. He's well on his way to getting another shot at a head coaching gig. McCarron, on the other hand, has some happy feet to work through, but what young NFL quarterback doesn't?
But Orr also notes how Jeremy Hill's struggles are a big concern for a Bengals offense that needs him to play great.
Jeremy Hill remains a bit of a concern. His yards per carry are down, and after already receiving multiple benchings in 2015 for ball security issues, he coughed up another that set the 49ers up with their first points of the night. As the team's primary goal-line option, this isn't exactly inspiring confidence, and as we drift further into power football season, Hill needs to come to terms with his errors.
The good news is Hill did get into the end zone twice to put himself into some nice Bengals company.
Bengals with at least 4 games with multiple rushing TDs Jeremy Hill 2015 Rudi Johnson 2005 Ickey Woods 1988 Peter Johnson 1979 & 1983— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 20, 2015
As John Breech of CBS Sports pointed out, this was the first time in two years the Bengals won a game without the offense netting even 243 yards of offense.
The Bengals could've started anyone at quarterback with the way the team's defense played against San Francisco. The Bengals defense forced four turnovers, which led to two Cincinnati touchdowns. The Bengals only put up 242 yards in AJ McCarron's debut, marking the first time since 2013 that Cincy won with under 250 yards of offense.
A big reason why the Bengals didn't have many yards was the offensive line having one of their worst games of the season, as Drummond wrote:
Not everything came up roses for Cincinnati—their O-line had some serious troubles in the run game, particularly when dealing with the interior of SF’s defensive line. Highlighting the struggle was the matchup of NT Ian Williams (+5.2) with center Russell Bodine (-5.2), where Bodine picked up eight negatively-graded plays in the run game. SF’s Quinton Dial (+5.7) also proved to be a pain, as he collected wins against each member of the Bengals’ O-line, Andre Smith (-4.5) being his chief victim.
The good news is as bad as the offense was at times, the defense was dominant enough that the 49ers could rarely stay on the field. As Jay Morrison writes, dominating third down was the key:
One week after allowing Pittsburgh to convert 8 of 14 third downs, the Bengals prevented the 49ers from converting their first 12 held them to 2 of 14 for the game.
The 14 percent success rate was the lowest the Bengals have allowed since holding the Browns to 10 percent (1 of 10) in a 30-0 win on Dec. 14, 2014.
Ten of the 12 third-down stops in San Francisco came when the Bengals had forced the 49ers into third and 10 or longer, including five of third and 13 or more.
In the end, the only thing that really matters is the Bengals won and clinched a playoff berth for the fifth straight year and sixth time in seven years.