AJ McCarron has held his own in the absence of Andy Dalton. He did not set the world on fire last week against San Francisco, but 192 passing yards with a 71.4 completion percentage was enough to get the job done and clinch a playoff berth. McCarron should only get better with the more experience he gets, which is good news as he has started off pretty well.
However, the defense he faces this week is not the same as the San Francisco defense he had success against last week
The Denver Broncos' defense is the best in the NFL; something similar to a navy blue and orange brick wall. They lead the league in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,119), and fewest passing yards allowed (2,800), making them the number one defense in the league in total defense, having given up just 3,919 total yards this season. On top of the low yardage allowed, the Broncos' defense has managed to keep the team at a turnover differential of zero despite the fact that they had Peyton Manning at quarterback (still the league leader in interceptions thrown despite being out for weeks), who was handing the ball over to the opposition left and right before missing the last five games due to a foot injury. This defense is stacked with players like Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., DeMarcus Ware, and Von Miller. McCarron has a huge test in front of him, but that does not mean that he and the Bengals are bound to fail.
No matter how improbable victory may seem for the wounded Bengals, there is a game that we can point to from earlier in the season to build some confidence and re-assurance that Cincinnati has a chance this week. That game is the Week 5 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, a game which Cincinnati of course won, 27-24. That win can give the Bengals hope because the Seahawks have the number two defense in the league. Seattle's defense ranks just behind Denver's in total yards, as the Seahawks have given up a total of 4,231 yards so far this season. Granted, Dalton had a huge game in Week 5, but that does not mean there weren't other guys who came up big in that win who could also make a big contribution against Denver. The Bengals running back duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard had 93 yards that day, and A.J. Green put up 78 receiving yards on the stellar Seattle secondary. Even with the injuries that the Bengals are dealing with on the offensive side of the ball, there are still weapons that will be on the field this week who excelled when the Bengals played the league's next-best defense.
It also helps that despite the rushing game's struggles last week, the Hill-Bernard combination has been successful against some stout defenses. In Cincinnati's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the only other top-10 defense that Cincinnati has played aside from Seattle this season, Hill scored two touchdowns, while Bernard caught eight passes and racked up 128 receiving yards out of the backfield. In order to take the pressure off of McCarron to succeed against a top-notch defense, the weapons around him will need to step up. Hill and Bernard could do a lot this week to contribute, but they'll need a better performance than they had against the 49ers last week
Speaking of McCarron's weapons stepping up, Green has a chance to be a huge factor this week as well. Green, like Bernard and Hill, has done well against the top defenses that Cincinnati has played. When going up against the number seven defense in yards this season in Arizona, Green managed 79 yards on four catches, with his longest reception being 42 yards. Green has been impressive against good defenses, and can be a valuable deep threat to McCarron this week.
Monday night will be crucial for determining how the Bengals will fit into the AFC playoff picture, as a win gives them a first-round bye and the division title. With Dalton likely out at least until the postseason, a lot of weight falls on McCarron's shoulders to put the Bengals in the best position possible going into the playoffs. Fortunately for him, he has perhaps the most talented team in the NFL around him. His teammates will have to chip in Green will have to make big catches, and the run game will have to be strong in order for the Bengals' offense to succeed in Denver. Primetime football is not the Bengals' strong suit, but with the ability they have shown against some good teams, McCarron should be able to lead this team to a win and an AFC North title.