While offensive coordinator Hue Jackson didn't run the ball 70 times against San Francisco, he did heavily feature Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard (33 combined carries for just 64 yards) in order to alleviate the pressure placed on AJ McCarron in the first start of his NFL career. The second year quarterback only threw the ball 21 times, but he made the most of his opportunities, connecting on a couple of deep passes to A.J. Green (1 reception, 37 yards), Marvin Jones (4 receptions, 89 yards) and a 20-yard touchdown to tight end Tyler Kroft. As a result, the Bengals got off to a 24-0 third quarter lead and held on for their 11th victory of the season. For highlights and analysis of McCarron's performance, watch the following video:
While McCarron (15/21 for 192 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating: 115.6) took care of the ball, he was sacked four times by a 49ers squad that has only 26 sacks on the year. That could be cause for concern, as Cincinnati will travel to Denver next Monday in a game that will determine who gets the number two seed in the playoffs. The Broncos lead the league in sacks (47), interceptions (21) and yards allowed per game (279.9). They are also coming off two straight losses, and will look to harass the inexperienced McCarron after getting burned by Ben Roethlisberger for 380 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air in Week 15.
The good news is that Sunday's game in San Francisco demonstrated that the Alabama product is aware of his role and the plethora of playmakers around him; McCarron didn't force throws, but rather, allowed Cincinnati's stellar defense to get him good field position. Such wisdom is the result of playing on two championship teams in college. And with another week to prepare as the starter, McCarron may just be able to pull out a win in Denver, instantly sending the Bengals to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1990 season, when they beat the Oilers in the Wildcard round.