Injuries are part of the game of football. That's an undeniable fact and not, in any way, an excuse for the Bengals' shortcomings in the final four games of the regular season and their playoff loss. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton got the short end of the injury stick this season. It really is unfortunate, because he was having the best season of his career so far. He even had a legitimate shot to put himself in rare company this season, being on pace to stand behind only Peyton Manning and Dan Marino in terms of most touchdowns through a quarterback's first five seasons.
If you'll recall, we speculated his potential to set the record back in July. In that article, I said it would take Dalton's best season as a pro to hit the record - so it seemed pretty unlikely. In the face of doubt, Dalton came out and played better than ever. I'll admit, I was wrong. Unfortunately, a poorly executed attempt at a tackle against Stephon Tuitt fractured Dalton's thumb on his throwing hand. Tuitt had intercepted a really poorly executed shovel pass from Dalton deep in the Steelers' territory, and basically the whole play was a mess, maybe Dalton's worst of the year. As a result, the AJ McCarron era began and the Bengals looked to capitalize on their early season success. Under Dalton the Bengals were 10-2, but they finished 2-2 with McCarron at the helm and fell short in an extremely close Wild Card playoff loss to the Steelers.
In a game of what ifs, let's take a look at how things could have went if Dalton were leading the Bengals for the final stretch of the season and into the playoffs.
Week 14: Bengals vs Steelers
With the Bengals sitting at 10-2 and the Steelers at 7-5, it was looking like this one win would lock the division up for the Bengals. It would also be a pretty severe blow to the Steelers' playoff hopes and, as we know now, would have kept them out, ultimately. Things didn't start out great, but the Bengals were getting ready to tie the Steelers who had jumped out to a 7-0 start on the first drive. Then, the unimaginable happened. Dalton got injured and the Steelers turned his season-ending interception into a field goal and 10-0 lead. McCarron just didn't have the experience yet to give the Steelers any realistic threat. The Bengals ended up losing 33-20.
But, let's pretend that Dalton finished that drive with a touchdown instead, and he didn't get hurt. You could argue that the difference between Dalton and McCarron's value to the team was greater than 13 points, the deficit the Bengals lost by. Given Dalton's penchant for leading big comebacks this season, you've got to like the Bengals chances to get out of this game with a win and a season sweep on the Steelers. If the Bengals won this game and the Steelers finished the season in the same manner, they would have missed out on the postseason.
Week 15: Bengals at 49ers
Coming off the momentous (hypothetical) victory over the hated Steelers and with the division officially clinched, the Bengals would have headed into San Francisco as confident as ever against a 49ers team that generally occupied the basement for the majority of the season.
I don't really see this game turning out much differently than it already did. AJ McCarron came out and put up a 115.9 passer rating against a visibly inferior 49ers team, at one point holding a dominating 24-0 lead. The only difference? I think Dalton would have picked the offense up after Jeremy Hill's fumble that breathed life into the hapless 49ers. The fumble inspired an impressive comeback attempt by the 49ers, but a lot of it had to do with McCarron being unable to get the offense going again after one thing went wrong. Luckily, for the Bengals, they were playing the 49ers. They escaped with a 24-14 win, but it could have looked much more lopsided had the team held together.
Week 16: Bengals at Broncos
Here's the million dollar game. The Bengals played a very inconsistent team in Brock Osweiler's Broncos, and you've got to think that Andy Dalton would have really made a difference in this one. The primary difference? The Bengals' offense probably would have been more consistent and could have bounced back after a disastrous defensive start to the second half. You've got to imagine that that second half comeback from the Broncos wouldn't have happened with a more veteran presence calming down an offense that looked absolutely flat for most of the second half.
Oh yeah, and that fumble by McCarron at the end of the game? Well, it would be silly to suggest that the team has never choked away a game like that with Andy Dalton under center, but, as much as everyone wanted to crucify Russell Bodine for the bad snap (myself included) it turns out that McCarron just wasn't paying attention to the ball on that play. Could a more veteran presence have put together a game-winning drive? The signs point to yes, and if they won, the Bengals would have officially secured the No. 2 seed in the AFC to compliment their division championship. And, the Broncos could have not only missed out on a first round bye, but the AFC West crown, too.
Week 17: Bengals vs Ravens
As much fun as it was for the Bengals to sweep the Ravens in 2015, and as much fun as it would have been for the Bengals to sweep the Steelers in 2015, let's take a step back here. At this point in the season, the Bengals would have been confirmed AFC North champions as well as the recipients of the No. 2 seed in the AFC. With the team being so hampered by injuries heading into the 2014 playoffs, it would stand to reason that Marvin Lewis would make the decision to be conservative with his stars rather than going hard to secure the No. 1 seed.
AJ McCarron could have made his Bengals debut this week, but he wouldn't have had weapons like Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green to play with. With the Ravens coming in hot after officially eliminating the hated Steelers from playoff contention the previous week, everything would fall into place for the Ravens to win this one. But, since the Miami Dolphins upset the New England Patriots in Week 17, the Bengals still would maintain control of the AFC's top playoff seed.
Wild Card Week: Bengals vs. Steelers
Wait a minute... the Bengals are the No. 1 seed, and the Steelers didn't make the playoffs at all. Move along, nothing to see here.
Divisional Round: Bengals vs. Broncos
In this hypothetical scenario, the Broncos have lost the AFC West to the Chiefs and, as the AFC's No. 5 seed, played Houston in the Wild Card round. Barring the Jets upsetting the Chiefs in Kansas City, the Bengals would probably host the No. 5 seeded Denver Broncos in the Divisional round, considering how badly the Chiefs beat them.
One question to ask about this game: does Peyton Manning get his job back? In this hypothetical scenario, the Broncos' game against the Chargers means nothing because the Steelers' loss to the Ravens would have given them a guaranteed playoff berth. There would have been much less pressure to take risks and win. Furthermore, Brock Osweiler probably would have shredded the Texans' defense much like Alex Smith did in the Chiefs' 30-0 win. This game potentially turns into Osweiler's shot at redemption against the Bengals, but the home field advantage and the Bengals' week of rest is too much for the Broncos to overcome. Rejoice, Bengals fans, you've finally won a playoff game and will be hosting the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship!
Or, rather, so it goes in our hypothetical universe.
Back to reality
I'm not here to make excuses for the Bengals or blame another failed Wild Card attempt on one particular injury, but the way the Bengals jumped out to an 8-0 start behind Dalton and looked to be recovered from a two game losing streak by Week 14, it leaves you to wonder. How differently could things have been? If I'm right and they would have hosted the AFC Championship, could they make it to or win the Super Bowl? With the Bengals losing two extremely key games by a combined five points, could Andy Dalton have made a difference? We'll never know, but, we can always wonder.