AJ McCarron made a promise.
“I will not let this team down,” said the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback.
It’s his team now, or at least his offense, at least for the foreseeable future. With Andy Dalton lost for an undetermined amount of time to a broken right thumb, the Bengals must turn to the second-year pro out of Alabama, the one who has played only a sliver of professional football, the one more famous for who he’s married to — former Miss Alabama and current model Katherine Webb — than what he’s done on the field.
“I’m going to work my tail off this week,” McCarron said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
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“We believe in AJ,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “We’ve seen him in practice make all the throws. We know what he can do.”
With three games left in a suddenly fragile Cincinnati season, McCarron will have to make those throws and get some help from his friends at receiver and maybe a lot of help from his teammates on the other side of the football.
We believe in AJ. We’ve seen him in practice make all the throws. We know what he can do.
Bengals receiver Marvin Jones
The Bengals entered Sunday with hopes of clinching the AFC North title, of going 11-2 for the first time in franchise history, of sweeping the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
They departed with a 33-20 loss and without their star quarterback. Dalton injured his thumb on the home team’s first series while tackling Pittsburgh’s Stephon Tuitt after a first-quarter red-zone interception.
“I didn’t know when it first happened,” Dalton said. “When I came over to the sideline and tried to grip the football, that’s when I knew.”
The extent of the injury won’t be known until Dalton sees a hand specialist Monday. The impact, however, is hard to underplay. Dalton was having a standout season. Before Sunday, the fifth-year pro owned the best pass efficiency rating (107.4) in the NFL.
Enter McCarron, who led Alabama to a national title in 2013 but didn’t play a down last season while rehabbing a shoulder injury. This year, McCarron had seen only mop-up duty, completing three of four passes for all of 22 yards.
Sunday, against a Pittsburgh defense that was angry before the game even started — the teams got into a skirmish during warmups — McCarron completed 22 of 32 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He did so without tight end Tyler Eifert, who departed in the first quarter with a concussion.
McCarron did commit a costly mistake early in the third quarter, trying to sling a sideline pass that allowed Pittsburgh’s William Gay, former Louisville star, to step in front of Mohammed Sanu and return it 23 yards for a raucous end zone celebration. A 16-7 Pittsburgh lead became 23-7. That was pretty much the game.
“They swapped coverages on me at the last minute,” McCarron said. “That won’t happen again.”
After all, there are three more games to play. The Bengals travel next to San Francisco, where McCarron will make his first start. A road game at Denver follows. Baltimore visits Paul Brown Stadium for the regular-season finale. Cincinnati needs at least one more win to clinch a playoff spot, maybe two to win the division.
The Bengals will also need help from their defense, and injuries are starting to take a toll there as well. Cornerback Adam Jones missed the game with a foot injury. Safety George Iloka played only briefly because of a hamstring problem. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict was in and out of the game with various ailments.
“We’ve got to do our part,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “We’ve got to get back to playing the kind of ball we know how to play.”
On offense, they must do it with a quarterback they barely know.
“I’m going to play better,” AJ McCarron said. “I promise you that.”