The Bengals’ 16–10 win over the Steelers in Week 8 typified the first half of the season in the AFC North, ending with Cincinnati riding high at 7–0 and Pittsburgh searching for answers at 4–4. The Steelers had dealt with a load of injuries and were just getting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back after a four-week absence, while the Bengals had combined great performances throughout their deep roster with some injury luck to open the season playing like one of the best teams in the NFL.
Less than two months later, things have changed a lot, and the Bengals are about to discover what the other side of that injury luck looks like. The Steelers beat their division rivals 33–20 on Sunday, their fourth win in five games to move to 8–5 on the season. Meanwhile, the Bengals have lost three of their last five and find their status as the AFC's top seed under serious fire, and now they have to face the possibility of playing multiple games without quarterback Andy Dalton, who injured his right thumb trying to make a tackle after a first-quarter interception. Dalton, who exited with three completions on five attempts for 59 yards, watched the rest of the game in street clothes with a cast on his hand.
After the game, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said that Dalton had a fractured thumb and would be out at least a week. Week 15’s trip to San Francisco will be the first start Dalton has missed in his five-year NFL career.
Backup A.J. McCarron was game enough given his inexperience—he’d played just 12 regular-season snaps in his career—especially on a 66-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the second quarter in which Green shook free of two Steelers defenders on his way to the end zone. That A.J.-to-A.J. connection was impressive, but there weren’t enough of them to win a shootout with a healthy Roethlisberger and the Steelers, who have the NFL’s most explosive passing game in the second half. McCarron finished his day with 22 completions on 32 attempts for 280 yards and two touchdowns, but his two picks did the Bengals no favors, especially since Cincinnati’s defense did a pretty nice job of doing what few teams can accomplish these days in keeping that Pittsburgh passing game in check. The Steelers scored 33 points, yes, but the points came on three Chris Boswell field goals, a William Gay interception returned for a touchdown and two one-yard rushing touchdowns from DeAngelo Williams.
“The kid has a great personality,” Lewis said of McCarron, selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Alabama. “That’s why he’s here. Now, he’s got to lead us for however long.”
Roethlisberger had an efficient day, completing 30 of 39 passes for 282 yards, but he also threw a pick to Bengals cornerback Reggie Nelson, the NFL’s interception leader with seven, including one in each of his last five games. The real difference-maker in this game was Williams, who has played brilliantly in place of the injured Le’Veon Bell. Williams gained 76 yards on 23 carries, keeping the chains moving and bulling through for those two rushing scores.
Dalton’s injury and unclear timetable have suddenly changed the AFC North picture pretty drastically. The Steelers face the Broncos, Ravens and Browns to finish the regular season, and while they’d need a remarkable confluence of events to come all the way back from what was a three-game hole entering this weekend to win the division, the first event happened in this game with Dalton's injury. The Bengals had already shown some regression, and now with McCarron set to make his starting debut ahead of games against the 49ers, Broncos and Ravens, there’s still hope in the Steel City.