When Andy Dalton re-emerged from the locker room with a cast on his throwing hand Sunday, Bengals fans’ worst fears came true.
“The immediate thought was, ‘This was the one thing that couldn’t happen to this team,’” Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals beat writer Jim Owczarski said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “They’re one of the deepest 53-man rosters in the league. They had won games with some key guys, some Pro Bowl-caliber guys, being hurt at other positions. A win would have put them in the playoffs, won the division (and they were thinking) of a 1-seed considering that New England had lost the week before. All of a sudden, here’s your starting quarterback, an MVP-caliber quarterback, in a cast on his throwing hand and the first thought is, ‘Yeah, that Super Bowl dream (is) definitely in jeopardy.’ Although that did change later with AJ McCarron actually playing pretty well considering the circumstances.”
Dalton, who had driven the Bengals right down the field on their opening series, fractured his thumb while tackling Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt following an interception. McCarron came on in relief, finishing 22-of-32 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, including a back-breaking pick-six in the opening minute of the second half that gave Pittsburgh a 23-7 lead.
McCarron will need to cut down on his mistakes this Sunday in San Francisco (4-9), but the Bengals, Owczarski said, are deep enough to stay afloat without Dalton.
“The defense just doesn’t allow touchdowns to bad quarterbacks and bad offenses,” Owczarski said. “Even if AJ McCarron turns the ball over once or twice or can’t move the ball down the field consistently in his first NFL start, there is a lot of confidence that they can at least win on Sunday and probably in Week 17 (against Baltimore). It’s just that Denver game (that could be tricky, but) Brock Osweiler, for all the love he got, he can’t really get that offenses going there in Denver. So (the Bengals have) three winnable games, even with a backup quarterback. So not all is lost, especially with that Denver loss to Oakland.”
It helps that McCarron, in addition to having the physical talent and the right mental makeup, is well-liked by teammates.
“They like him,” Owczarski said. “He’s done good job. For a kid who’s a backup quarterback, clearly the No. 2, hasn’t played, we’ve seem him in the locker room – he gets along with all position groups, all the players, the stars, so to speak. He’s not just sort of relegated to his guys on the second team. He’s a very likable guy. And right away, even after that game Sunday, his veteran teammates were like, ‘We’re ready to go with the guy. We feel like he can lead us until Andy Dalton comes back.’”