The Cincinnati Bengals started the regular season with an 8-0 record, which was largely put down to Andy Dalton’s incredible performances. Then, four games before the end of the season, Dalton broke his thumb in the Bengals’ second match-up against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Back-up quarterback AJ McCarron replaced Dalton for the majority of the Steelers game – which the Bengals ended up losing 33-20 – and for the next three games. McCarron ended the regular season with a 2-1 record and is expected to start in the AFC Wild Card playoff contest.
Cincinnati’s quarterback dilemma
CBS Sports reported earlier this week that the Bengals are preparing for McCarron to be their starting center against Pittsburgh.
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Since that report, Andy Dalton has had his cast removed and is in contention to play in the Wild Card. ESPN writes that Cincinnati coach, Marvin Lewis, says that they won’t know who their starting quarterback will be until closer to the time. Lewis said: "We're preparing for AJ McCarron to be the starting quarterback,"
"Whether Andy's the backup or where Andy is [later in the week], we'll know down the line.
"Andy continues to progress well. He's doing what he's supposed to do. ... He'll be ready when he's ready."
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AJ McCarron has played well since Dalton’s injury. He’s thrown six touchdowns in his four appearances with a 66.5% pass completion. What’s also quite impressive is that, in 115 pass attempts, McCarron only threw two interceptions. Unfortunately, they both came against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite McCarron’s decent and improving play, a fit Andy Dalton would still be the obvious choice to lead the Bengals offence. He’s had a career-best season defeating top teams like; Seattle, Kansas City and their Wild Card opponents, Pittsburgh.
It might actually be worth riding McCarron’s improving form given Dalton’s record on the big stage. The starting QB is 0-4 in the playoffs – and 4-9 on primetime – whereas McCarron is 1-1 during his short spell on primetime; so maybe a change at center would help the Bengals overcome their recent playoff funk.
Steelers v Bengals
In Week 14, Pittsburgh came away with the W after defeating the Bengals 33-20 at the Paul Brown Stadium. But Ben Roethlisberger didn’t manage to pass a single touchdown – running back DeAngelo Williams, rookie kicker Chris Boswell and the defence did all of the scoring.
Star wide receiver, Antonio Brown, was held to 87 yards on seven receptions, and tight end Heath Miller only went for 66 yards on ten receptions. Altogether, five Steelers received the ball a combined total of 30 times, with none of them becoming touchdowns.
The Bengals, on the other hand, managed 25 receptions across nine different receivers, two of which transpired into passed touchdowns – from AJ McCarron. However, their Hill-Bernard running committee didn’t manage to get onto the scoreboard.
Defence wins championships
Despite each side’s high-powered offences, the game may be decided on the defensive match-ups.
ESPN statistics records the Bengals defence as conceding fewer points per game and fewer yards per game than the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Steelers have made 12 more interceptions than the Bengals (21 – 9).
It looks more likely that McCarron will man the Bengals offence this weekend, which bodes well for the Steelers’ defence. The back-ups only two interceptions this season came when he relieved Dalton in Week 14.
Big Ben could probably pass to Brown through a brick wall; they’re both just that good, so a big part of the match-up will be Cincinnati’s ability to keep Antonio Brown out of the end zone.
An underdog victory is on the cards
The Steelers come into the Wild Card game as favourites, but the Bengals will be a tough opponent, especially with that top defence.
AJ McCarron proved that he was an accomplished passer in his relief of Dalton. If the game can stay close early on, the Bengals could utilise all of their rushing and receiving weapons to bring down Pittsburgh.