Andy Dalton injured: will the Cincinnati Bengals implode?
The form team of the AFC suddenly faces a nervy end to the season after losing quarterback Dalton to a fractured thumb
The Cincinnati Bengals hopes of finally winning a Super Bowl were badly dented last night when they were beaten 33-20 by the Pittsburgh Steelers and lost quarterback Andy Dalton to a thumb injury that could sideline him for the rest of the season.
The Bengals, who had the second best record in the NFL ahead of Sunday's clash, are now in danger of failing to win their division and if Dalton's absence prompts a collapse in the final weeks of the season they could even miss out on the play-offs despite a record of 10-3 with three games left to play.
The Bengals need only one win from their final three games to secure the division, but Pittsburgh are breathing down their necks with a record of 8-5, and Cincinnati's back-up quarterback AJ McCarron has never started an NFL match. Two of their games are on the road, in San Francisco and Denver, before what could be a nail-biting final home match against divisional rivals the Baltimore Ravens.
The jury is out on McCarron, who was a fifth round draft pick in 2014 but has an impressive college record of 36-4 for Alabama. But can he lead the Bengals to post-season success?
"With the AFC North title within their grasp and home-field advantage for the playoffs not far behind, the Bengals lost Andy Dalton to a fractured thumb," says Nancy Armour of USA Today. "In one play, the Bengals' fortunes – those of the entire AFC, really – turned upside down."
They should still make the play offs, says Armour, but "if the Bengals wind up facing, say, the streaking Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game while missing Dalton, well, all bets are off".
Dalton's fractured thumb and a concusssion to tight end Tyler Eifert have not been well received in Cincinnati. "It's clear the 'panic' has already set in for some Bengals fans. And can you blame them?" asks ESPN.
Without two key players the offense "would have quite the challenge to overcome" in the final weeks of the season, warns ESPN, before adding: "Cincinnati shouldn't panic too much, though. At least the Bengals have a date with the nine-loss 49ers next week."
If the Bengals, who have not won a play-off game since 1991, implode it would not be the first time it has happened.
"The 2014 Arizona Cardinals were rolling last season – like, really rolling – until their quarterback, Carson Palmer, sustained a season-ending knee injury. Without their offensive star, they lost four of their final seven games to fall out of first place in the NFC West, and then Arizona lost in the opening round of the playoffs," says the New York Times. "Could the Bengals be facing a similar situation this season?"