Bengals in playoffs for 5th year in row, biggest game ahead

CINCINNATI (AP) — AJ McCarron will start the Bengals’ most important game so far, one that likely will decide the top of the AFC playoff bracket.

McCarron won his first NFL start on Sunday, leading Cincinnati to a 24-14 victory in San Francisco that wrapped up a postseason berth. The Bengals (11-3) can clinch the AFC North and no worse than a No. 2 seed in the playoffs with a victory next Monday night in Denver.

A Bengals loss would give Denver (10-4) the advantage for the second spot because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. The No. 2 seed gets a first-round bye and then a home playoff game. New England (12-2) is currently in line for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

None of the usual it’s-only-one-game talk this week.

“This next game will be a huge game for us and everyone knows that,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “That is what our sights are set on.”

And much of the focus will be on McCarron, who didn’t make any glaring mistakes in his first NFL start, but showed he’s got a lot of room to improve. The second-year player went 15 of 21 for 192 yards with one touchdown, four sacks and no interceptions.

McCarron got his first significant playing time the previous week when Andy Dalton broke his right thumb. McCarron took over after Dalton was hurt and threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown that helped Pittsburgh pull away to a 33-20 win.

This time, he didn’t turn the ball over. A couple of times, he protected the ball and took a sack instead of risking a fumble or interception.

“But now he’s got to take that next step because we don’t want the sacks either,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said on Monday. “We want to get rid of the ball. That’s just part of it.

“There’s times when you say ‘uncle’ and take the sack, and then there are times when you say ‘uncle’ and if you can throw it away, throw it away. This is still a game of field position.”

The defense made it easier on McCarron by forcing the 49ers to punt on their first four possessions, then getting an interception and a fumble that helped Cincinnati take a 21-0 lead into halftime. The Bengals led 24-0 in the third quarter and ran the ball to try to drain the clock.

The biggest disappointment was the running game, which has struggled at times all season. Cincinnati ran 36 times for only 68 yards, a 1.9-yard average. Jeremy Hill didn’t start the game — the coaching staff won’t say why — and finished with only 31 yards on 19 carries. The line missed blocks as well.

“We had guys break down there across the board,” coach Marvin Lewis said.

A first-round bye in the playoffs would give Dalton an extra week to heal, improving his chances of returning. Also, it would improve the Bengals’ chances to get their first playoff win since the 1990 season and snap the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history.

“That’d be heavenly,” Jackson said. “That’s the fun part about where are. There’s still stuff out there. There’s goals and aspirations that we have that are sitting there, and then you’ve got to go try to get them.”

Notes: Jackson declined to say whether Hill would open the game on the bench in Denver again. … A.J. Green was limited to one catch for 37 yards. Green has a sore back, but Jackson said it was more of a function of the 49ers covering him and McCarron picking other targets. “We’re not trying to force the ball to A.J.,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that’s important when you have a young quarterback playing in his first game because then that’s when things start going the other way.”