As the Cincinnati Bengals welcome Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers to Paul Brown Stadium for their NFL Playoff Wildcard game, all eyes will be on A.J. McCarron to see if he can accomplish what Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer couldn’t do before him. With Dalton sidelined for Saturday’s game due to his thumb injury, McCarron — making just his fourth NFL start — will try to lead the Bengals to their first NFL Playoff victory since 1991.
Although the answer was left unofficial throughout the week, the Bengals gave word today that Andy Dalton is officially out for the match-up on Saturday night. As Sports Illustrated reported, despite having his cast removed on Monday, Dalton has not been cleared to play tomorrow. The “Red Rifle” fractured his thumb in week 14 against the Steelers.
In Dalton’s stead, Cincinnati’s fifth-round draft pick from the 2014 NFL Draft will make just his fourth start against the Bengals’ AFC North Division rivals. McCarron didn’t play at all last year. He finished week 14 after Dalton’s injury in a losing effort to Pittsburgh. Since then, he is 2-1, with victories over the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. His only loss came to the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos in overtime.
Bengals officially rule out Andy Dalton for Saturday's game vs Steelers. AJ McCarron will start for Cincinnati. pic.twitter.com/sQCZyHhTg5— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 8, 2016
As noted by Fox Sports, since taking over for Dalton, A.J. McCarron has completed 66 percent of his passes. He’s thrown four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Dalton’s injury came after he had thrown an interception of his own. While playing the Steelers earlier this season on December 13, Dalton had a pass intercepted by Pittsburgh’s Stephon Tuitt. Dalton went after the defensive end. His attempt to tackle Tuitt resulted in his thumb injury. Although he has been at practice and has worked out as much as possible, he hasn’t thrown a football since the pass that Tuitt intercepted.
Under center for Cincinnati’s opponents will be veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Ben — who was the victim of a fake rape warning prank in Cincinnati today — has won more than three times as many NFL Playoff games as McCarron has started any game in the NFL at all. But A.J. doesn’t appear to be cracking under the pressure.
“I’m taking it one day at a time. That’s the only way I know how. I’m not the kind of person to say, ‘What if?’ I don’t think into the future or live in the past. It’s just the present right now, and I’m having fun with it.”
It will be even more fun if McCarron can snap the longest NFL Playoff victory drought in the league’s history.
As it has been well-documented, the last time the Cincinnati Bengals won a game in the NFL Playoffs was January 6, 1991. They hosted the Houston Oilers in the Wildcard Round of the AFC Playoffs. Boomer Esiason was the quarterback then. Carson Palmer couldn’t win one in 2005 or 2009. Andy Dalton hasn’t been able to do it for the last four years.
Just like Boomer in 1991, A.J. will be at home in the first round on Saturday. If he can pull off the biggest win in over 25 years for the Bengals, it will bring up a very interesting question about who starts when Andy Dalton is medically cleared to come back.
But before Marvin Lewis can wrestle with that question, he’s going to have to take his team past their arch rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can catch the Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL Playoffs on Saturday, January 9, starting at 8:15 p.m. EST on CBS.
[Image credit Andrew Weber/Getty Images]