By Curt Macysyn
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron is seeing how the other half lives these days. After honing his skills at national powerhouse Alabama and marrying the girl next door in model Katherine Webb, McCarron seemingly had the tiger by the tail. But going from being the big man on campus to Andy Dalton's understudy has given a unique perspective to the Bengals young signal caller that will play itself out on Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
But will it be enough to carry the Bengals (12-4) to a playoff win against their bitter AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)?
Who Will Start?
At his press conference on Tuesday, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis reiterated his stance, saying, "I said that yesterday. We’re preparing with AJ McCarron to be the starting QB. Whether Andy [Dalton] is the backup or where Andy is, we’ll know down the line. He’ll be ready when he’s ready.”
Lewis is playing coy with the idea that Andy Dalton may be in the quarterback mix, as the Bengals starter just had the cast removed from his thumb this week. Dalton even indicated that he had just begun physical therapy, but had not yet started to throw.
The fact that McCarron met with the media on Tuesday is also an indication that he will be the starter on Saturday, but having Dalton available to come off the bench seems to be an alternative worth keeping an eye on as the week progresses.
McCarron was 22-32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns in the 33-20 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 13, 2015, in a game where he was pressed into service after Andy Dalton broke his thumb. In that game, McCarron threw two interceptions, including a 23-yard pick-six by William Gay on the first series after halftime, but he has otherwise taken care of the ball in his starts.
The Steelers thrive on intimidation, so getting into McCarron's head would seem to be order one for the black and gold, especially after a somewhat inauspicious start. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so McCarron survived, and he will be able to utilize his experience moving forward.
How will McCarron react to returning to the scene of the crime?
“The first couple of snaps reminded me of my first high school game playing Carter-Montgomery, and I jokingly came to the sideline and asked my offensive coordinator if they had more than 11 people on the field. It definitely helps to have had the time and experience in between. I feel comfortable in the way we are playing and the way we are taking care of the football. I feel fine," McCarron emphasized this week.
The fact that McCarron did not attempt to whitewash the situation shows a level of maturity that should allow the inexperienced quarterback to focus on managing the game, instead of trying to win it on his own.
Bengals Playoff Woes
The success of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis cannot be underscored enough in these days of the NFL. The league has become a transient enterprise, so Lewis' 13 seasons in the Queen City are an anomaly these days. He sports a 112-94-2 record as head coach of the Bengals, but—and it's a big but—he has not won a playoff contest, going 0-6 during his 13 years with the Bengals.
Can he break the skid this year?
Cincinnati was undoubtedly the best team in the usually tough AFC North division this season with a 12-4 record. With the breakdown of the Browns and Ravens, the Bengals and Steelers were the only playoff caliber teams in the division, and opening up with a familiar foe does not do any favors for the Bengals. Familiarity breeds contempt, and these two teams do not like each other.
Lewis made it obvious that the streak is not about him—it's about his team—and he will maintain focus for his troops. “I don’t think we change much of what we do. Every time the situation is different. Every one is a different situation; the health of your football team, when you play, where you play, it all changes. I think our guys understand how to prepare, and we’re not going to alter much from what we’ve done all season,” Lewis emphasized this week.
So can a coach with zero post-season victories win a playoff game with a back-up quarterback running the show?
The answer is yes.
The reality is that the Steelers and Bengals are rivals, and the intimidation factor will not mean much as these teams face each other for the third time this season. A.J. McCarron went 2-1 as the full-time starter and completed over 66 percent of his passes (79 of 119) with six touchdowns and two interceptions. The two interceptions came in game 1 as Dalton's replacement against the Steelers on Dec. 13. Despite his youth, McCarron came from a college program with incredibly high expectations, so he should be up to the task at hand.
"I played in some big games in college. There is a lot of media getting down there before national championship games. There were distractions in Miami and New Orleans. I feel like this is comfortable. I get to go home to my house every day and see my wife and little dog. I get to sit on my couch and watch film," McCarron said.
Defensively, the Bengals have managed the Steelers' dynamic receiving corps of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton to only one touchdown catch in the two regular season contests. Cincinnati must clamp down on tight end Heath Miller, who had 20 catches in the two games, and being without Le'Veon Bell and possibly DeAngelo Williams will adversely impact the Steelers offense.
If Lewis can keep the focus on the present and away from the past, Cincinnati should be able to end the Steelers season on Saturday. If the Steelers get into McCarron's head, then Lewis will be sent home again still winless in the post-season.
Curt Macysyn has been covering the New York Football Giants for the past four seasons for Examiner.com, and he is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). Born and raised in New Jersey, Curt attended Seton Hall Prep School in South Orange, N.J. and is a graduate of Rutgers University - New Brunswick. Follow him on Twitter @CurtMac23 for the latest NFL and New York Giants news.
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