It's never an ideal scenario being without a guy that was playing as well as Andy Dalton was before suffering a broken thumb. As of now, Dalton's likelist return will be if the Bengals make it to the Divisional Round game, but even that's a toss-up at this point.
That means Cincinnati may have to win multiple playoff games without their starting quarterback if they want to accomplish their goal of winning the Super Bowl. It also may mean facing teams like the New York Jets in the Wild Card round and the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round without the services of their top signal-caller.
The Bengals would have a very small shot at winning a playoff game against a team the caliber of the Jets and possibly Broncos if they were playing with most of the league's backup quarterbacks. The good news is AJ McCarron continues to show us he's no ordinary backup.
Though McCarron and the Bengals lost on Monday night, McCarron put on quite the performance against arguably the NFL's best defense. He finished the game completing 22 of 35 passes for 200 yards with one score vs no interceptions and an 86.6 QBR.
"I felt good. I felt like I was able to put the ball where I wanted to, and when you're able to do that against good corners, especially the ones they have, it really gets into their head," McCarron said Wednesday. "Especially when they know how good they are and 'I usually make that play, I usually pick that ball off and he's putting it in a place.' So yeah, it builds confidence for yourself. I think it builds confidence for your receivers especially because they know if I get to my right depth, I get to my right spot, this is where the ball's going to be and it just keeps building more and more chemistry and trust between everybody. Converting big third downs is huge for us as an offense."
For perspective, only Andrew Luck (92.3) has a better QBR vs the Broncos this season, and his performance came in Indianapolis. Aaron Rodgers (64.6), Teddy Bridgewater (66.3) and Tom Brady (62.3) had the next-best QBRs in Denver this season, but they come up far short of McCarron's mark.
Now that he's the Bengals' starter with Dalton out and getting all of the practice reps, McCarron feels and is playing like a quality NFL starter.
"I think a huge difference," McCarron said. "Talking to Zamp (Ken Zampese), I think just from coming in from the Pitt game and then being in the San Fran game and how I started out especially against Denver, I felt like we were throwing it all over and we were really taking advantage of a lot of things, and capitalizing on them. I've said this from the beginning: It's all about reps. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I am and the more chemistry we create as an offense. It felt good on Monday. Hopefully it just keeps getting better and better."
In Denver, McCarron consistently did what was needed of him while also making several unexpected good plays. Unfortunately, the last play of the game cost the Bengals as McCarron fumbled the ball away to end the game.
"It’s an unfortunate thing and it happens, "McCarron said. "My eyes got caught up. I was trying to read the defense, and thought we were going to have a big play, and it happens. It’s football. Like I said, it sucks to happen in that moment, rather than play 20 of the game. It’s just one of those things, but we still fought really hard. I thought we played a very good game against the number one overall ranked defense and very good team. Tough place to play, and I was proud of the guys."
McCarron was also injured on the play as Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware came down on his hand, but it thankfully doesn't look serious. When asked if he would play Sunday, McCarron responded with confidence he'd be able to go. And, he has practiced in each of this week's practices so far.
"Yeah, I’m really just doing what the training staff is telling me. Taking it day by day, and I’ll be ready to go," McCarron said. "I’m practicing and just did the walk through. I don’t have any concerns. Just ready to get back and playing. Ready to go."
As for the importance of winning this week, McCarron knows how important momentum is this time of the year now that the playoffs are about to begin, and beating Baltimore Sunday is a must for this team to get going into the postseason.
"Yeah, it’s huge. It’s just like the MLB. The baseball team that catches the momentum at the end, usually rides that hot streak deep into the playoffs. It’s big for us to get a win this week, and start that momentum into the first round of the playoffs."
There's also still the possibility the Bengals get a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win and a Broncos loss in Week 17, which is why McCarron doesn't want to let off the gas pedal now.
"There is still a chance to get a bye," McCarron said. "All we can do is control what we can. Go out, win the game, and whatever happens in the rest of the games happens. We’re not doubting anything, or worried about anything. We’re going to go out this Sunday and play football like we always do, and try to get a win."