The Bengals entered Sunday as the top seed in the AFC. They left Sunday without their starting quarterback.
Andy Dalton, in one of the most improbable sequences in NFL history, threw an interception on a shovel pass and then fractured his thumb while tackling Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt. The Bengals lost to the Steelers, 33-20, to fall to 10-3 on the season.
Even worse? Dalton could be out for the year.
“I don’t think you’ll see him for the rest of the regular season,” former Bengal and current Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “If there’s a fracture there, which there is, depending on the degree, there has to be pins surgically implanted and that sort of thing and he’s done for the year, whether its playoffs or not. But if it’s just a fracture that doesn’t require surgery – and he’s seeing a specialist (Monday) afternoon – the fact that he has to go there tells me that it might not bode well. But if somehow it can heal up without the surgery, then he’s probably looking at a month, best-case scenario. So what the Bengals need to do is get a bye week and give him an extra week, that fifth week. You know how it is. You’re out a month, you come back, your finger is a little ginger and that’s the controlling point of the football. That’s the guide deal. That determines accuracy, and let’s face it: He’s not going to be the same quarterback if he does come back to play in the playoffs that he was when he went out injured.”
AJ McCarron came on in relief of Dalton and had mixed results. He finished 22-of-32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns, but he was also sacked three times and threw two interceptions, including a 23-yard pick-six to William Gay that made it 23-7 just 50 seconds into the third quarter.
McCarron, 25, will be asked to steer the Bengals’ ship – and steer it well – while Dalton is out.
“He wants to be great,” Lapham said of McCarron. “He loves being coached. He’s got the ‘it’ factor. This guy, his teammates love him. They love his passion for the game. He just has got an unbridled joy for the game of football and it’s contagious with his teammates. Honestly, he went in there yesterday in adverse conditions, and he didn’t run on offensive stop all week long in preparation for the Steelers. He was Ben Roethlisberger. He ran Pittsburgh’s offense against the Bengals’ defense all week, giving them the best look he possible could. Obviously you’re in meetings, you’re watching tapes, and you get the mental reps. But the physical reps? Zero. So I thought he acquitted himself pretty well.
“The Steelers did what they’re going to do to a young quarterback,” Lapham continued. “They came with a bunch of different looks, pressure-package looks. They showed him one coverage pre-snap and rolled to another one post-snap, and he got caught on that on the pick-six. He got fooled. Those are the learning experiences. I think every snap he took out there, he’s the type of guy that’s going to grow.”
McCarron has vowed to play better this Sunday in San Francisco (4-9), and he’ll need to play even better than that against Denver (10-3) on Monday Night Football on Dec. 28. There’s still a lot to be determined in the AFC, but Bengals/Broncos will likely determine which teams gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Lapham believes the Bengals can win with McCarron. He doesn’t see McCarron backing down.
“You saw him at Alabama,” Lapham said. “Boy, on a big stage, to win national championships, (it was) not too big for him, that’s for sure. I think the players will rally around him, and just like anything, the offensive line has to secure the pocket better and for a longer period of time. Receivers have to run crisper routes. Everybody has to do a little bit more, so nobody has to do a lot. You can’t expect AJ McCarron to do a lot, that’s for sure.”