Bengals not a lock to win division with Andy Dalton out
The Bengals entered Week 13’s matchup with the Steelers as arguably the AFC’s best team. They left it as no longer a lock to win the division.
Quarterback Andy Dalton suffered a fracture in the thumb of his right hand, and it will likely keep him out the remainder of the season, with the slight possibility that he could return during the playoffs. His absence alone means that Cincinnati isn’t a sure thing to win the AFC North, even though it has a 10-3 record and a two-game lead in the division with three games to play. That’s how important the quarterback position is in today’s NFL; it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Steelers leap the Bengals over that stretch.
If the Steelers win out and the Bengals lose all three of their games, obviously Pittsburgh would take the division, but even if Cincinnati wins a game and the Steelers win out, they need to win the right game to affect the tie-breaker scenarios within the division. A win against San Francisco – one of the worst teams in the league – does them minimal good, while a win against Baltimore (also very bad) or Denver (far less likely) does them significantly more.
Without getting too bogged down in the details, there are plausible scenarios that see the Bengals finish the season with anything from the No. 2 seed to the No. 5 seed, and the Steelers with a healthy Roethlisberger look like one of the league’s best teams (despite a below-average defense).
The key to Cincinnati’s outlook will be how well AJ McCarron play in Dalton’s place, and how long Dalton will be out with that injury to his throwing hand.
If Dalton can return in four weeks or so, then McCarron may not need to achieve anything at all, because the right end to the final three weeks of the NFL season could see the team back into the playoffs and host a Wild Card game in which Dalton returns to start.
On the other hand, if the injury is more severe we could be looking at McCarron needing to do what Dalton has yet to achieve during his NFL career – win a playoff game – before we see Dalton back under center, if he returns this season at all.
McCarron’s NFL career is precisely 61 snaps old, with 49 of them coming against the Steelers yesterday after Dalton went down. This is the first game in which he has seen more than seven snaps of action, and the first in which he attempted more than three passes. Even if we count preseason, we have seen just 177 snaps from McCarron and 96 pass attempts, so we are working with extremely limited data.
As we have said all season long, however, this Cincinnati team is better placed than ever to succeed. On offense the line remains strong, and the weaponry is more formidable than ever before. A.J. Green is no longer the only target, with Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones providing legitimate alternatives and Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill doing damage from the backfield.
On defense, Geno Atkins is back to something approaching his best, which is to say one of the league’s most devastating defensive players. And overall, there are only two teams with a higher team-grade at PFF this season, and they both occupy No. 1 playoff seeds right now (Carolina and New England).
From the little we have seen of McCarron, he is inconsistent – both capable of making big plays and also big mistakes. Even the box score from yesterday’s game does a pretty good job of representing that, and he finished with a negative-1.4 grade. Cincinnati may not need McCarron to be excellent to succeed this season, the same way they didn’t need Dalton to be, but they likely will need him to avoid costly turnovers at crucial times.
In particular, McCarron really struggled against pressure versus the Steelers — something very common for a young quarterback. His numbers when throwing from a clean pocket were much better:
Making sure McCarron has time to throw is going to have to be a priority of this offense the next few weeks, as the Bengals look to minimize the quarterback’s mistakes and take advantage of their strong defense and offensive supporting cast.
This is a team better built than ever to win now, but losing Dalton, who was undoubtedly playing the best football of his career, is certainly a blow. Now all that is left to see is whether McCarron can play well enough to exploit the Mercedes he has just been handed the keys to.