In the most meaningful regular-season game in the past 20 years, the Cincinnati Bengals almost pulled off a win despite the many setbacks to success heading into Mile High. The kingpin of all the excuses raised was that of the injured finger of Andy Dalton which allowed his understudy AJ McCarron to call the shots in the huddle for the third consecutive week and the second with McCarron starting.
It would be fair on a singular level to say that McCarron was the reason for a 20-17 overtime loss when he dropped a snap that resulted in a walk-off turnover. To win the big ones, things like that cannot happen under any circumstance, end of story. Then again, if you blame him entirely, you're grossly misplacing your anger.
McCarron made no bad throws on Monday Night Football, in the cold, against the league's top-ranked defense. He cheese-graded the Denver secondary in the first half, looking better than serviceable, but then cooled considerably once adjustments were made. Either way, he's far from a disaster and shows some serious promise at the most important position in sports.
No, blaming the rookie quarterback this time isn't holding up. There are reasons the Bengals lost on Monday Night Football and he isn't one of them.
It appeared the altitude took its toll on the Bengals' defense late in the game as the tackling and the quick steps diminished. The timely Reggie Nelson pick on a seam route overthrow never surfaced this time around and the front seven started getting gashed by the run midway through the third quarter. Once C.J. Anderson broke the long touchdown run to give the Broncos their first lead, the momentum and confidence was swept away and the tables were turned. The defense did not play poorly, but running out of gas down the stretch sure put a lot of extra emphasis on the young quarterback.
Then there were little things, like Kevin Huber not being able to pin the Broncos' deep in the second half, timeouts being eaten up before they should have even come into play, and hurtful penalties like Vontaze Burfict's borderline call out of bounds in overtime.
Where Bengals fans should direct their anger, though, is to the running game.
It's okay if a team can't run the ball very well. No team is completely flawless, at least none that I've seen, but the good ones know when something isn't working and admit it to themselves. This Bengals team cannot, and has not been able to rely on the ground game in months. The initial assumption was that Jeremy Hill was missing his holes and dancing a lot, which is still true and that Giovani Bernard is not an effective bell cow who can produce with plentiful carries, which also looks to be true. But beyond all of those worries was the solace found in the assumption that the offensive line would sooner or later emerge as a road-grading pack of rhinoceroses that could smash its way to touchdowns and wins. It has simply not been the case.
Conventional wisdom states that a team has to run the ball every now and again, and with a rookie quarterback, even more so, but when your two fancy draft-pick running backs are averaging less than three yards per carry, you have to take a hard look at conventional wisdom in its old, withered face.
This magical season has been significantly marred in its last quarter, most notably due to Andy Dalton's injury. Last season, the Arizona Cardinals found themselves in a similar situation when they had to trot out a third-stringer to win a playoff game. It did not happen.
McCarron looks better than your average backup. There is a certain capable nature to his play that fuels the hope of Bengals fans that he can survive the first round of the playoffs and advance far enough to give Andy Dalton a chance at coming back and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara this upcoming February. The tremendous pressure and close microscope that comes with the position does not appear to impact McCarron's play and ability to win. All that being said, the playoffs are a far more difficult gauntlet and only the very strongest survive. The loss in Denver was consoling in the fact that McCarron did hang around in what felt like postseason material, but the team still lost. It also lost to Pittsburgh and at Arizona, who too count themselves among playoff worthy teams. The first half of the season was a breeze for the men in stripes, and some impressive foes were vanquished during that stretch. But the second portion of the schedule has become increasingly more rocky and serious doubts are now being cast.
If all of this means that the Bengals play well but still lose in the Wild Card round just over a week from now, and hang their collective heads for the fifth straight season, will the Queen City still feel good about the team's effort this year? Will the highlights of one of the greatest seasons in franchise history be overshadowed by a huge injury to the star quarterback that dampened the enthusiasm of a success-starved sports town?
In that event, McCarron would become the permanent excuse for this season's failure, even if his play was adequate enough to overcome the hump. If that story is to be written differently, it will be because the other parts of the team increased the level of their play to championship heights and masked the deficiencies that came about due to injury. That is not how it played out in Denver, and, if this is the evidence we have at hand to analyze, project and predict, it will not be how it plays out in January.