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The Bengals' magic season now depends on AJ McCarron

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The Bengals lost their place in the AFC standings and their starting quarterback for at least a week, maybe more. Now, it's up to AJ McCarron to keep the team's postseason hopes alive.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- He thought it might be just a bruise, exactly the injury mindset every player embraces when hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. And then Andy Dalton could not pick up a football on the Paul Brown Stadium sideline before X-rays revealed a bone fracture in his right, throwing hand.

It was on the Cincinnati Bengals' first offensive drive, a clever one that rolled to the Pittsburgh Steelers 4. Dalton was intercepted, tried to make the tackle, cracked his hand and the Steelers then splintered the Bengals 33-20.

The Bengals on Sunday afternoon looked to clinch the AFC North title. Not only did they fail, they lost their quarterback.

Dalton is out at least next week in San Francisco. In steps backup quarterback A.J. McCarron.

The Bengals are about to enter that zone where playoff contenders including Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis and Philadelphia have toiled this season. Each of those teams lost their quarterback for stretches due to injury. Each tossed in a backup, some of them two. Each found a way to bob and weave, patch and glue, stay revived and alive in their playoff push.

Now it is the Bengals' turn.

For certain, the later it happens in a season, the tougher the task.

The Bengals are 10-3 with only three regular-season games left: at San Francisco, at Denver and home against Baltimore. Further tests will reveal when and if Dalton returns. The Bengals are hoping for a return in two weeks. A more realistic hope might be for the playoffs.

"It's unfortunate that it happened at this point in the season, but I'm going to do everything I can to get back as quickly as I can to help this team," Dalton said. He added that he will be examined by a specialist on Monday.

"We've just got to go back to work and figure it out," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We've been so fortunate with Andy, because this is the first time he's missed time since he was a rookie, since his first game. I just knock on wood every time someone says that -- and now we're going to play a game without Andy."

Lewis sounded and looked pensive when he said that.

And why not? Dalton since he was drafted in 2011 had started 76 consecutive Bengals regular-season games.

McCarron, the former University of Alabama quarterback, calls Dalton "A.D." So, A.D. used to fling it to fleet receiver A.J. (Green) for the Bengals but now AJ (McCarron) will be the facilitator to A.J. (Green that is).

Actually, that AJ to A.J. connection produced a 66-yard scoring bomb against the Steelers. McCarron threw for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns. His 90.6 passer rating was higher than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (85.6). McCarron had some big moments after being tossed into the fray, a few passes he delivered with accuracy and power. But he was rusty and off enough that his two interceptions hurt Cincinnati's comeback chances. So did the fact that the Steelers started fast, played faster and maintained distance throughout the game from the Bengals.

Pittsburgh (8-5), now having knocked Dalton out, might think it can still win the AFC North. Pittsburgh knows it must keep winning to keep wild-card playoff hopes alive.

The Steelers during warm-ups here described the atmosphere as "spicy." The push and shove and mouthing during the game they described as "chippy."  By game's end the Steelers had managed it all, like they usually do here. They are 14-3 in this stadium.

"That game was grimy," said Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. "But that's how we like to play."

The Bengals saw it, felt it. Pittsburgh took full advantage of Dalton's loss. They added pressure with their offense (8 of 14 in third-down efficiency) and turned their defensive pressure loose on McCarron.

People in Cincinnati are going to chat now about taking the pressure off McCarron and how everyone else has to do more. About just letting him grow and be comfortable and be himself. Maybe manage things.

But the truth is the Bengals need McCarron to step forward and play a big-time version of quarterback in the season's most critical stretch. There is no pixie dust that can obscure that.

McCarron knows it.

"If you don't, you're doomed," McCarron said of quarterbacks believing in themselves. "I believe you need to carry that confidence as a quarterback when you step inside those white lines. It's a nasty and dirty game. If you lose confidence, it can go bad for you real quick. We made some mistakes today and I'll learn from them. I'll be up here early in the morning learning from them and I will do whatever I have to do to lead this team and get the job done. Like I said, I promise to God, I will work my tail off and be ready to go."

He said he told his Bengals teammates that. Promised them that.

No matter how spicy, chippy, grimy, nasty and dirty it gets.

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