There may not be a more critical 24 hours in the Cincinnati Bengals' season than the one that starts Sunday at 1 p.m.
That's when the Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens in a game that may ultimately have little impact in the Bengals' playoff seeding, but will be another chance for AJ McCarron to establish himself as a starting quarterback and get more comfortable in that role as he makes just his third NFL start.
Three hours later, the Denver Broncos host the San Diego Chargers in a game that will decide who gets the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. A Denver win means they get it and Cincinnati will play in the Wild Card round. A Denver loss and a Bengals win mean the No. 2 seed is the Bengals. Whether it's McCarron or Andy Dalton playing (if the Bengals play) on Wild Card weekend, may be decided early Monday when Dalton meets with doctors to determine if he's ready to remove the cast on his fractured thumb, as Geoff Hobson reports:
Dalton says he's going to doctor Monday when he hopes to get out of cast, but he's not sure— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) January 1, 2016
Dalton: I have no idea what DR will say. No timetable. When he says I'm ready, I'm ready— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) January 1, 2016
But NFL Network's Ian Rapoport has consistently said Dalton will likely be out a few more weeks and miss the Wild Card round, something he reiterated Friday.
Still weeks away https://t.co/PGYaHLMxvp— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 1, 2016
While the Bengals have gone 1-2 since Dalton's injury, the losses were to a 9-6 Pittsburgh Steelers team and an 11-4 Broncos club fighting for their playoff lives. McCarron has done enough that Bengals players are strongly expressing their support for him and the belief they can still accomplish what they started with Dalton.
"No question in our mind whether we can win a playoff game with AJ McCarron," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, via Bengals.com. "He has enough leadership and character. The most important thing for a quarterback is how the guys feel in the huddle with him and confidence they have around him. There’s not a guy that doubts that he’s going to come in and give us the best he’s got and make good decisions and those kinds of things. That’s probably one of his strongest suits. He gets leadership."
At this point, it looks almost certain that McCarron would start a possible Wild Card game in Paul Brown Stadium. Though, Dalton won't say that if the Bengals are playing next weekend it won't be him at quarterback.
He remains "week to week" - Dalton won't rule himself out for any playoff week as of today. #Bengals— Jim Owczarski (@JimOwczarski) January 1, 2016
Monday is a big day: Andy Dalton will get his thumb re-evaluated. Receives bone stimulation 2x a day but he ... https://t.co/N6IvouqwOi— Jim Owczarski (@JimOwczarski) January 1, 2016
It also looks like it would feature the New York Jets coming to town, but an outside shot remains that Pittsburgh will be the team coming to the Queen City for the first weekend of NFL playoff action.
Dalton is now set to miss his third game this week after originally breaking his thumb against those very Steelers in Week 14. Prior to that, Dalton was having a career season that will end with him having thrown for 25 touchdowns vs just seven interceptions with 3,250 yards on a 66.2 percent completion rate and a career-high 106.2 passer rating.
McCarron hasn't been too shabby himself, tossing four touchdowns vs two interceptions with 694 yards and a 95.1 passer rating while completing 67.4 percent of his passes. At this point, it's safe to think McCarron can lead the Bengals to a win in the Wild Card round, but it's hard to see the Bengals reaching their ultimate goal of a Super Bowl without Dalton the rest of the way.