The dark cloud hanging over Andy Dalton's reputation has always been his inability to perform in the playoffs. Although he is one of only five quarterbacks to lead their team to the playoffs in each of their first four seasons, his record is 0-4 in said games and he's thrown one touchdown and six interceptions. Heading into a fifth consecutive playoff appearance for the Bengals, Dalton won't be starting this time. Instead, his backup, 2 time BCS National Champion at Alabama AJ McCarron will bring his four games of NFL experience into Paul Brown Stadium for the biggest game in Cincinnati since the last time the Steelers traveled there for a Wild Card game; the same game in which Carson Palmer went down with an ACL injury in the first quarter. It's not the biggest game just because it's the playoffs - the Bengals have made the playoffs the last four years - but rather because it's the Steelers in the playoffs. While the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is probably best known to the casual NFL fan, seldom fan bases have more disdain towards a team than do Bengals fans towards Steeler Nation.
As I recently reflected upon, that could be in part due to how it went the last time Pittsburgh came to Cincinnati for a playoff game. It resulted in Carson Palmer being carted off the field and every ounce of hope being sucked out of the city. The hatred goes back to include when Hines Ward broke Keith Rivers' jaw on a peel back block that today would have cost him a couple games and a couple hundred grand and resulted in a rules-change. The disgust includes James Harrison joining the Bengals only to return to Pittsburgh after a single season. This game is just bigger because it's the Steelers.
With so much on the line and big game reputations considered, are the Bengals better off with AJ McCarron at the helm than Andy Dalton?
McCarron is technically 2-1 as a starter but let's consider him 2-2 considering he filled in for Dalton after he hurt his thumb against the Steelers and went on to throw 32 passes. So he's 2-2 in his four games as a pro. His only two interceptions came in that game versus the Steelers: a game in which he didn't have the week to prepare as the starter. Further, the Pick6 he threw in that game, you know? The one where William Gay celebrated three times as long as Cam Newton ever did finishing with a knee walk chest bump with linebacker coach Joey Porter, yeah that one. He'll never make that mistake again. The reason Gay celebrated so much was because it was the easiest interception of his career. It was a simple misread Cover 2 that I don't expect McCarron to make again.
If the game plan is to run the ball, which is likely given the forecast in Cincinnati for Saturday afternoon, McCarron is the safer play. Consider this, McCarron only has one game with an interception (his first) and has managed to control the ball since then. In Dalton's four playoff games thus, he's thrown six interceptions. If the plan is to run the ball, manage the clock and move the ball on the ground, McCarron gets the edge because he's proven to be safer with the ball, even if he doesn't have a playoff game under his belt yet.
If the game plan is to throw the ball, however, the best quarterback I've seen in stripes this year was a healthy Andy Dalton. Luckily, I think the elements and roster will dictate a strong rushing attack which leads me to my real X-factor: Jeremy Hill. If Jeremy Hill can continue to move the ball consistently on the ground, allowing the offense to keep a balance of run, pass and playaction, McCarron will be able to maintain his aggressiveness and move the ball against Pittsburgh. However, if he isn't able to move the ball on running downs and leaves the offense in 2nd and 3rd and longs with regularity, that's when the game plan relies too much on McCarron's playmaking ability in the pass game and puts the team in jeopardy because we know the Steelers will bring the heat.
As long McCarron is empowered to go out, play his game, and not lose it, I think that gives the Bengals their best shot. However if the game trends in a direction where McCarron is asked to make plays and bail out the offense on those 3rd and longs, that's when I worry. It's funny how it all works out but it really does come down to defense and the run game in the playoffs and given the Bengals' quarterback situation, that's the best news they could have asked for.