The end of the year is quickly approaching. That means it's time for the NFL playoffs. It also means the Cincinnati Bengals are looking to participate. This year, things are dramatically different. With Andy Dalton watching from the sidelines, the Bengals are going to depend on second-year starter AJ McCarron to guide them. He'll have to produce the magic that the team needs to advance in the postseason.
When Andy Dalton suffered a fractured thumb against the Steelers, the odds of the Bengals dropped like a bad day on the stock exchange. A collective groan could be heard from the city of Cincinnati. But the man taking over for Dalton is no stranger to pressure. His championship pedigree has primed him for moments like this.
Bengals' offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will get a chance to show the football universe his magic. He has tons of confidence in his new project and was eager to show his enthusiasm when asked about the dilemma. Jackson is always upbeat and ready to flash a confident smile as he talks about his weapons.
"We're going to make some magic happen," Jackson proclaimed confidently, per the Cincinnati Enquirer. "That's all. We will."
With Hue Jackson's help, the Bengals witnessed Andy Dalton blossom into a confident quarterback that had started playing at the elite level. His numbers found on the NFL Network show the improvement. His touchdown-to-interception ratio had dropped, and his stats were up dramatically from years past. Dalton was on pace to break most of his personal bests. The Bengals had become comfortable with Dalton making audibles in certain situations. He had mastered the offense and was tweaking it to fit his strengths.
Sidelined with the thumb injury, Dalton will be out four to six weeks. That means the magic will have to happen with McCarron. Jackson isn't going to change the attack mode, but he will change the way that it's implemented. By the time the Bengals play the Niners, McCarron will be wired into the system and no one will notice much of a difference. Jackson is adamant about that.
"I want McCarron to be as comfortable as he can be and play as well as he can play. So whatever it is that we need to do for that to happen is what we'll do."
Taking away options for McCarron isn't the answer. The Bengals have so many weapons and so many ways to use them that it would be counterproductive to put them in a box. As the season progresses, the timing will have to become better. That's done with the Bengals running their offense and tailoring its nuances to fit McCarron.
"You definitely don't worry when you have those guys out there," McCarron explained. "Hopefully, we can get Tyler Eifert back. But the guys I have out wide I know I can take some chances because they're going to go up and get the ball."
Jackson has been here before. In 2011, the challenge came when quarterback Jason Campbell fractured his collarbone. His season was done. Jackson responded by trading for Carson Palmer, who refused to play for the Bengals and had gone into temporary retirement while Dalton took over. The brilliant move almost helped Oakland ease their way into the playoffs.
With the Bengals, Jackson won't have to make any deals to get a proven quarterback. He knows that his new signal-caller will be able to navigate the treacherous land that is the NFL. The Bengals' coordinator is a student of the game. He has done work on both sides of the ball and knows how to handle nervousness from his players.
When the bright lights of Levi's Stadium pop on for Sunday's game, the Bengals will be ready. They'll be prepared to use the magic that Jackson has created.
[Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images]