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Andy Dalton optimistic, but Cincinnati Bengals plan on A.J. McCarron

By Jeff Wallner, The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 5, 2016 at 1:12 AM
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CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are preparing to begin the playoffs with AJ McCarron at quarterback.

Andy Dalton's fractured right thumb still is on the mend and coach Marvin Lewis said Monday he has offered his final thoughts on the subject.

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"I wish Andy would just be quiet and quit telling you all what he's doing," Lewis told reporters following Sunday's 24-16 win over Baltimore. "He puts a lot of pressure on himself that way."

Lewis was referring to Dalton informing the media on Friday that he was going to meet with doctors Monday and hoped to have his cast removed.

Lewis would not immediately share the results of that exam.

"We're going into at least the early part of the week preparing with AJ," Lewis said. "It's important for the football team."

What looms ahead for Cincinnati (12-4) is a prime-time playoff showdown Saturday night against hated AFC North rival Pittsburgh.

With a win, the Bengals will end the NFL's longest postseason victory drought and move on to face the New England Patriots in the second round.

Cincinnati has gone 2-1 in McCarron's three starts since Dalton fractured his thumb on Dec. 13 against the Steelers.

Until the cast is removed, Dalton is relegated to working on the side in practice, which he began last week with simulated drop-backs and conditioning work.

McCarron played another largely mistake-free game Sunday, passing for 160 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens.

He has not thrown an interception in three career starts.

"If the other quarterback turns the ball over and you don't, it puts your team in a situation to win the ballgame," McCarron said. "That's the biggest thing for us, taking care of the football."

The Bengals intercepted Baltimore quarterback Ryan Mallett twice on Sunday and did not turn the ball over themselves. As a result the Bengals wrapped up the third 12-win season in franchise history.

What Cincinnati failed to secure on Sunday was a coveted first-round bye, which would have given Dalton a bonus week to recover.

But Denver's victory over the Chargers in Sunday's late game clinched the No. 3 overall seed for the Bengals, who now must face the Steelers, their chief nemesis.

While McCarron has played well since taking over, the Bengals, who began the season 8-0, no longer are considered Super Bowl contenders minus Dalton's 3,250 passing yards and 25 TDs.

In fact, Cincinnati is considered a slight underdog at home against Pittsburgh.

"It's going to be unfortunate if Andy (Dalton) can't go," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "But we believe in AJ McCarron, and we believe we can win with him. We're excited for the opportunity."

REPORT CARD VS. RAVENS

--PASSING OFFENSE: B. It was another mistake-free afternoon for quarterback AJ McCarron, who went 17-for-27 for 160 yards and two touchdowns. In three starts since taking over for injured Andy Dalton he has yet to throw an interception. When under duress Sunday with no clear options, McCarron threw the ball away.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: A. The Bengals' 145 rushing yards on Sunday were an encouraging development heading into the postseason, especially the performance of running back Jeremy Hill, who produced a season-high 96 yards, including a 38-yard TD, his longest run from scrimmage this season.

--PASS DEFENSE: C. Cincinnati allowed 292 passing yards and nearly 10 yards per completion by Ravens QB Ryan Mallett. But while Baltimore moved the ball it found the end zone just once, settling for three Justin Tucker field goals. Mallett also was sacked once and pressured more often.

--RUN DEFENSE: A. The Bengals allowed only 59 rushing yards and forced QB Ryan Mallett to win the game on his own, which wasn't likely to happen. Baltimore managed just 2.8 yards per carry.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: B. Kicker Mike Nugent connected on his only attempt, a 52-yarder in the fourth quarter. Punter Kevin Huber netted 41.1 yards on seven attempts with three inside the 20.

--COACHING: A. The insertion of offensive guard Jake Fisher at H-back in place of injured Ryan Hewitt helped spark an oft-dormant running game, which produced 145 yards, 96 by running back Jeremy Hill. Quarterback AJ McCarron again played mistake-free football in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's scheme and the Bengals

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