December 16, 2015

Living for the moment, AJ McCarron is far more concerned with successfully guiding the Cincinnati Bengals offense than a lengthy run of futility involving NFL quarterbacks from his alma mater.

With the Bengals in position to win their second AFC North title in three seasons, McCarron makes his first career start Sunday on the road against the San Francisco 49ers.

Cincinnati (10-3) received some good news earlier this week when it learned starter Andy Dalton won't need surgery on his broken thumb suffered in last Sunday's 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh. Though it's possible Dalton returns this season, the offense is in the hands of McCarron for the time being.

''Everybody knows where we're going,'' offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. ''Nothing's changed. We're chasing the same goals, the same dreams. We've just got a little different leader right now and that's OK.

''Hopefully we'll be able to get Andy back at some point and we'll move forward. But right now it's AJ McCarron's show and he'll go lead the parade.''

The Bengals could have already clinched a fifth consecutive playoff berth before they kick off Sunday, and a victory or a Pittsburgh loss to Denver would give them the division title. With plenty at stake for Cincinnati this weekend, McCarron plans to relish the moment.

A winner of back-to-back national championships at Alabama, McCarron is no stranger to thriving when the lights are brightest - which is just about every week in the NFL. However, since Jeff Rutledge won a game for the New York Giants in 1987, Alabama quarterbacks have since gone 0-13 in NFL starts.

McCarron, who threw four passes in three NFL games before going 22 of 32 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions after replacing Dalton last weekend, doesn't care about the past.

"That's history,'' the 2014 fifth-round pick said. ''I'm not really worried about history. I'm worried about what we have right now.

"Pressure moments are when you get to shine the most ... It's a different game at this level, but still big pressure moments and I feel like I've had a lot of those.''

He should be able to rely on A.J. Green, who caught 11 passes for 260 yards in the last two games and a 66-yard TD pass from McCarron against the Steelers.

The Bengals would like to get more from a rushing game that was held to a season-low 64 yards last Sunday. There's a good chance that could happen after a Cleveland team that averaged 73.9 rushing yards ran for 230 in a 24-10 victory over San Francisco (4-9) last weekend.

That could take some pressure off McCarron and mean more work for either Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. The Bengals are 6-0 when at least one of them rushes for 50 yards.

Cincinnati's defense held a sixth straight opponent under 100 rushing yards last week but did give up its second-highest point total of the season - though two TDs came after McCarron's interceptions. The Bengals, allowing 17.6 points per game to rank second in the NFL, could return to the form that yielded 10 points in victories over St. Louis and Cleveland in the previous two games.

The 49ers are last in the NFL with averages of 14.5 points and 289.4 yards, including 221 against the Browns.

Some players felt the team, which has clinched its first losing season since 2010, somehow overlooked a woeful Cleveland team after beating Chicago in overtime the previous week.

"This is your job," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "You must be prepared. You must be ready. You know the games are coming every single week. It's an individual thing to bring your own energy.

"We're just a team fighting throughout the season, (and we can't) let this happen next week."

Blaine Gabbert continues to be a modest bright spot for San Francisco, completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 1,157 yards with six TDs in five games since replacing Colin Kaepernick as the starter. Gabbert has thrown only one interception in the last four games but has been sacked 17 times in that span, including a franchise record-tying nine against the Browns.

The Bengals rank among the league leaders with 34 sacks.

"I have to find a way to get rid of the ball," Gabbert said. "When you take that many negative plays throughout a football game, it's tough, you're digging yourself a deep, deep hole. I just have to find answers quick and make sure we're all on the right page with communications.

"It starts with me up front. I have to do a better job. Plain and simple."

San Francisco won the most recent meeting with the Bengals, 13-8 in 2011.

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