Well, last week - as I feared - not only did the Bengals lose to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers (though they still sit with a comfortable 4-1 division record in the AFC North), they also lost their all-pro quarterback to a broken thumb.
Who would have ever thought I'd be typing those words?
Not that they lost Andy Dalton, who had never missed a game in his NFL career, other than missing half of his first start ever. But that I'd be using the words "all-pro" to describe Dalton?
There is no doubt that he was having his best season by far in the NFL, and that's saying something considering how he has never had a losing record (say what you will about his playoff record, though) and was having the best season in NFL for anyone not named Tom Brady or Carson Palmer.
Now the Bengals pin their hopes on their back up quarterback, AJ McCarron, whom they drafted two years ago, and who many fans were clamoring for to start this season. Ironic, right?
The good news - when McCarron took over for Dalton midway through the first quarter, he looked good. He didn't play exceptionally, though he did throw for 280 yards, including a gorgeous 66 yard TD pass to AJ Green, and 2 TDs and a 90 rating. He played very well for someone who never got one practice snap with the first string offense. That is an encouraging sign for this week. Plus, McCarron played at the center of the college football universe: Alabama, where he posted a 36-4 record and won to national championships. So starting a game in the NFL against a poor San Francisco team, the stage is not to big for him.
More good news - the Bengals have a great supporting cast around McCarron: AJ Green, Mohammed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert (who will miss this game though), and a great stable of running backs, as well as a veteran offensive line. And he has a top ten defense to help him out on the other side of the ball.
The bad news - this will be his first start in the NFL. Ever. Pulling out a win on the road is a tall order. I wouldn't be so nervous if this was McCarron's fifth year and he had a few fill ins and several more pre-seasons under his belt.
And ever since roaring out to a 8-0 record, the Bengals have gone 2-3. Now those three losses have been close: 6-10 vs Houston, 31-34 at Phoenix, and 33-20 (minus Dalton) to a surging Steelers team.
As it stands, though, the Bengals have three games left and still no playoff spot or division titled secured. Luckily, they have two winnable games in the next three (San Fran and then they end the season at home vs. the Ravens). Win those two and they sit at 12-4, which would tie the for the best record ever in team history.
What I've noticed about the NFL, though, is just how fickle everyone is. Two weeks ago when the Bengals crushed the Browns 31-7 to go to 10-2 and both the Broncos and Pats lost, the Bengals were on top of the world. Everyone was ready to bury the Pats and Broncos and anoint the Bengals the top team in the NFL.
Now, after a very key injury and an ugly - but not totally unexpected loss to the Steelers - many are ready to assert that they won't even make the playoffs.
But let's not get carried away.
If the Bengals' coaching staff can coach at all (and in Hue Jackson, they have a great offensive coordinator and very likely a head coach of another team next year), and if their roster is as deep as many "experts" contend (they argue that the Bengals have one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the NFL, a deep secondary with two possible Pro Bowl players (Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson), one of the NLF's best tight ends (Eifert, though he will be out this week) and wide receivers (Green) as well as a two headed monster at running back (Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard), then they should have little trouble pulling out two wins in the final three games to secure the AFC North title and get a home playoff game.
A bye week as the #1 or #2 seed would be asking too much, as it would give Dalton yet another week to heal. However, seeing that Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs, is having McCarron start in the playoffs any worse?
With any luck the Bengals move to 11-3 and the Steelers vs. Broncos game results in the Broncos knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs and setting up a big time showdown next Monday night for the #2 seed in the AFC when the Bengals travel over to Denver. Who day!!