With win over Ravens, Bengals could earn bye

Posted at 10:21 PM, Dec 31, 2015

CINCINNATI (AP) -- The snap slipped right through AJ McCarron's hands, and with it went Cincinnati's chance of clinching the playoff bye it wanted so badly. When it comes to all things playoff-related, the Bengals seem to find a way of letting it slip away.

McCarron fumbled a shotgun snap in overtime, and Denver recovered for a 20-17 victory on Monday night that left the Broncos with the inside track on the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. The Bengals (11-4) need help now.

First, they have to extend their recent success against Baltimore (5-10) on Sunday. The Bengals have won four in a row over their AFC North rival, including a 28-24 victory on Sept. 27 in which Cincinnati twice rallied in the fourth quarter.

Then the Bengals need the Broncos (11-4) to lose at home to San Diego (4-11), allowing the Bengals move up. Even if that doesn't happen, the Bengals figure they need a solid all-around showing on Sunday to take some momentum into their worst time of the season.

"Yeah, it's huge," said McCarron, who will start his third game in place of the injured Andy Dalton. "It's just like with MLB -- the baseball team that catches the momentum at the end usually rides that hot streak deep into the playoffs. It's big for us to get a win this week and start that momentum into the first round of the playoffs."

The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. They've reached the playoffs each of the past four seasons and lost in the first round. They were in line for a playoff bye until Dalton broke his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, forcing the Bengals to get his inexperienced backup ready.

It's unclear whether Dalton will be available for the playoffs -- a bye would have given him an extra week to heal -- so the Bengals are getting McCarron ready for the postseason pressure.

He'll face a Ravens defense that shut down Pittsburgh in a 20-17 win last Sunday, severely damaging the Steelers' chances of getting a wild card. Baltimore can end the Bengals' slim hopes of a playoff bye with another upset.

"They've gotten us," cornerback Jimmy Smith said, referring to Cincinnati's four straight wins. "They're the bully right now. We've got to go fight back. We've got to win this game.

"We're definitely going out to ruin anything they've got going on."

Five things to watch on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:

McCARRON'S PROGRESS: The Broncos changed their defense in the second half and McCarron struggled, showing his inexperience. The Bengals are trying to use the game on Sunday to get him a little more ready for the postseason.

"This guy has the right stuff, he's made of the right stuff," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "But as we all know, we just want it to happen fast. And it will. You're trying to pack years of experience into a guy that's played two games. Let's be honest, that's what we're trying to do, and that's hard to do sometimes."

SECOND-HALF SLUMP: In McCarron's two starts, the Bengals have put up impressive opening halves and then struggled to keep it up. They got up 21-0 in San Francisco and won 24-14. They led 14-3 at halftime in Denver and managed only a field goal in the second half for the second straight game. One of Cincinnati's overriding goals on Sunday is to put together a complete game.

MALLETT'S ENCORE: The Ravens signed Ryan Mallett because of injuries to Joe Flacco and backup Matt Schaub. He made his first start on Sunday and completed 28 of 41 for a career-high 274 yards and a touchdown. He'll make his eighth career start Sunday.

"Hopefully, there's more to come in the future, but it was pretty good," Mallett said.

MEMORABLE VISIT: Shortly before the 2014 draft, the Ravens brought McCarron in to check him out. Coach John Harbaugh compared him to Drew Brees in the way he gets rid of the ball quickly and makes good decisions. McCarron, who was drafted in the fifth round, remembers the conversation.

"Yes, it was definitely a huge compliment," McCarron said.

CAREER SEASON: The loss of Ravens star receiver Steve Smith to injury has paved the way for Kamar Aiken to put up some impressive numbers. Aiken has already reached career highs in catches (70) and yardage (868). Since Smith went down on Nov. 1, Aiken has had at least five catches in eight straight games. With five catches  Sunday, he will break the franchise record for games with at least five receptions: Derrick Mason also had eight in row in 2007.