The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
But one big difference from the past four trips is Andy Dalton, whose status for the Wild Card game is greatly in doubt. A fractured thumb suffered in Week 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers still has him sidelined. Ironically, those very Steelers are coming to Paul Brown Stadium this Saturday in a do-or-die playoff game between two AFC North rivals.
ESPN is reporting the Bengals expect Dalton to be out for this game, leaving backup AJ McCarron to make his fourth NFL start.
The Cincinnati Bengals are preparing as if quarterback AJ McCarron will start Saturday night's AFC wild-card game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
McCarron has started Cincinnati's past three games in place of Andy Dalton, who is sidelined with a broken thumb on his throwing hand.
Dalton is scheduled to meet with doctors Monday and hopes to have the cast removed from his right hand, but the Bengals still are uncertain whether the two-time Pro Bowler will be available against Pittsburgh.
This has been the expectation for some time now, and the good news is, McCarron has played admirably in Dalton's absence. Now in just his second NFL season, McCarron has a 2-1 record as a starter with the lone loss coming in overtime to the AFC's No. 1 seeded team in Denver.
Against the Ravens this past Sunday, McCarron completed 17 of 27 passes for just 160 yards, but did toss two touchdowns against a team that finished eighth in total defense and 10th against the pass. He didn't get off to a great start, which led to the Bengals trailing 7-9 at halftime.
Head coach Marvin Lewis said as much after the game, but was happy with how well his young QB finished.
"I thought he got going there. Early in the football game, I thought he was a little amped up," Lewis said Sunday. "He was quick on some throws but then he settled down, relaxed and did a nice job."
McCarron thought he had trouble finding his rhythm early on, and he knows that can't happen against the Steelers this week.
"I just for some reason couldn’t get in a rhythm to start,' McCarron said after the game. "We just had some miscommunication on certain routes, but when we picked up the tempo, it kicked right in and I felt great. It’s just some games are going to be like that. We started off hot last week and came out in the second half and didn’t. This week we didn’t start out hot and we finished well. We just have to put a full game together for next week."
McCarron finished the regular season having completed 79 of 119 passes (66.4 percent) for 854 yards (7.18 yards per attempt) with six passing scores, two interceptions (both against the Steelers) and one fumble lost.
That was good enough for a 64.4 QBR and a 97.1 passer rating. For perspective, Dalton's best single-season QBR prior to 2015 was a 56.8 mark set in 2013 (had 73.1 this season), and his best passer rating was an 88.8 mark in 2013. Dalton finished this season ranked second in the NFL in passer rating at 106.3 (Russell Wilson 110.1). McCarron's 97.1 passer rating would rank 9th if he had enough games played for it to count.
Adding to that, McCarron did not throw an interception in his three starts. Considering all three games were decided by an average of seven points, that was a big reason why the Bengals went 2-1 instead of 1-2 or even 0-3 in those games.
"Well, it’s big because we’ve had a chance to win every game," McCarron said of his pick-less streak. "Like I said from the beginning, if the other quarterback turns the ball over and you don’t, it puts your team in a situation to win the ballgame. That’s the biggest thing for us, taking care of the football. Everything wasn’t perfect today, but that’s the way it’s going to be sometimes. But we did take care of the football and I’m proud of the guys for that."
McCarron did throw two picks against the Steelers in Week 14, but that was after coming off the bench as Dalton started the game and had been getting all of the first team practice reps to that point. Now, McCarron is getting all the reps and will be far more prepared for the Steelers this week.
"I feel like I am finally getting some reps, know the offense a little bit more and am more used to it," McCarron said. "I’ve been trying to take care of the football and being thrown in that game, I didn’t. I feel like we are doing good, though."
McCarron has played in his fair share of big games, though most of them came in college at Alabama. The difference between a national championship game in college and an NFL playoff game is something McCarron admits he doesn't yet know.
"I don’t know. Like I’ve said from the beginning when I was able to take this thing over, college is college and the NFL is the NFL," McCarron said. "I think having experience playing in big games in bigger stadiums and it’s a lot louder and the stakes at Alabama are pretty wild, I think it helps. But it’s two different leagues and I just preparing for the moment I am living in right now."
While it's too early to tell how good McCarron can be in the NFL, he's played at a level that has allowed this Bengals team to win. The problem is, Dalton and the rest of the Bengals have faltered come playoff time, and this franchise hasn't enjoyed playoff success in over two decades.
McCarron wants to end that drought, and knows the rest of his teammates want to do the same.
"I think no matter if it’s me or A.D. (Andy Dalton), Keith (Wenning) or Mike (Kafka), we want to win. I think the whole team, the whole offense is going to step up for this challenge and really prepare hard this week," McCarron said. "This is a great group of guys we have; guys want to win games. They want to work hard. It’s been a fun year. We definitely come to work this week and get ready to go."
And while Dalton is the quarterback of this franchise now and for the foreseeable future, McCarron is making a strong case that he too can be a starting quarterback in the NFL, even if it ultimately ends up being with another franchise. A playoff win this weekend would only strengthen that case while also keeping the Bengals alive for a Super Bowl run.