The Cincinnati Bengals played their first 10 games of the season without having to put a member of the opening day roster on injured reserve. Through 12 games, the only player to suffer a season-ending injury since the start of the year was Darqueze Dennard.
In other words, the Bengals had been incredibly fortunate in terms of injuries heading into Sunday’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh. But the odds caught up to them in Game 13.
“One thing about this league man, to get to that Super Bowl you’ve got to have some luck on your side,” said A.J. Green. “We had some bad breaks today.”
In this case, the “break” was literal as the Bengals lost the player they could least afford to lose with a fractured thumb.
“It sucks about Andy,” said Kevin Zeitler. “It’s very unfortunate. It was a great play by the Steelers down there and Andy went to prevent the return and stuff happens.”
At this point, we don’t know how long quarterback Andy Dalton is going to be out. Additionally, the Bengals best cornerback Adam Jones missed the game with an injured foot, and the NFL co-leader in touchdowns, tight end Tyler Eifert, exited with a concussion.
“We’ve got to circles the wagons and stay positive,” said Michael Johnson. “If the injured guys have to be out for a while, we’ll have to have other guys step up. We’re built for this.”
In the NFL, you had better be. This season, the list of star quarterbacks who have missed considerable time due to injury includes Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Andrew Luck. Dalton had started 81 consecutive games, a record for a Bengals quarterback, and was having his best season with 25 TD passes, 7 interceptions, and a passer rating of 106.2.
“It’s so frustrating and I feel bad for him,” said Zeitler. “He’s been playing great and he’s been a great leader this year. He’s been doing everything he had to do, but it is what it is. We need McCarron to step up, we have talent in this room, and we’ve got to get through it.”
AJ McCarron did not appear overwhelmed against the Steelers as he went 22-for-32 for 280 yards, with 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and a passer rating of 90.6.
“I thought he did great,” said Green. “To be thrown in the fire like that against the Pittsburgh Steelers who are playing out of their minds right now, I thought he handled it well. The stage didn’t seem too big for him, he commanded the huddle very well, and I think when we get back to work this week and he gets some more reps with the ones, I think he’ll be fine.”
“AJ did not take one snap with the first string offense last week,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He was Ben Roethlisberger at practice and ran Pittsburgh’s plays all week. So I tip my cap to him for how he did. He wasn’t happy obviously and was lamenting the two interceptions but that’s how competitive he is.”
“AJ can play – it’s not a secret,” said Johnson. “I expected him to come in and play well and he did. He’ll get more comfortable with more practice time if he has to be in there and hopefully Andy will make a speedy recovery.”
In the meantime, the Bengals next three opponents are San Francisco, Denver, and Baltimore. This weekend, they lost by a combined score of 74-28. Their starting quarterbacks were all backups at the beginning of the season: Blaine Gabbert, Brock Osweiler, and Jimmy Clausen.
“We’ll have a week to prepare with AJ (McCarron) and we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get that chemistry down as fast as we can,” said Green.
“We’ll be fine,” said Johnson. “The main thing is to do what we need to do to keep it a family and stay tight.”
“We’ve got to get ready for San Fran because we can’t get stuck on this,” said Zeitler. “We’ve got to finish strong.”
As bleak as things seemed at the end of the loss to Pittsburgh, the Bengals will clinch at least a wild card playoff berth with a win next week at San Francisco. And regardless of what happens the next two weeks, Cincinnati would win the AFC North by beating Baltimore in the final game of the regular season. The Bengals would also capture the division by winning two of their last three games, or winning one game coupled with a Pittsburgh loss or tie.
In addition to losing their quarterback on Sunday, the Bengals frequently lost their poise. There were numerous skirmishes throughout the game, beginning with the pregame shoving match between Vontaze Burfict and Vince Williams – the Steelers linebacker that had threatened him on Twitter.
“I was shocked, I guess, at the beginning,” said Zeitler. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“It was one of the least-poised games that I’ve ever been a part of and that was disappointing,” said Johnson. “We have to be better than that. We talked about it all week and they came in and got us to do exactly what they wanted us to do – and that’s get into all of that crap and not focus on playing between the whistles. You can see the outcome.”
“Guys lost their poise sometimes,” said Green. “That’s when you have to channel all of that stuff because you can’t fight on the field. So why get into it? Just go back out there and play the next play.”
“It was a tough, physical game,” added Zeitler. “What else do you expect from Bengals/Steelers?”
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