AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — AJ McCarron didn’t make any big mistakes in his first NFL start, setting up a win.
He’ll need to do a lot more on Monday night to get the Bengals where they ultimately want to go.
The second-year quarterback didn’t have a turnover during a 24-14 win in San Francisco last Sunday, his first start in place of the injured Andy Dalton. He’ll be facing the league’s top-ranked defense on Monday night in Denver with a first-round playoff bye riding on it.
He needs to do more than just avoid mistakes in order for the Bengals (10-3) to get that bye. He needs to manage the offense in a tough place for visiting teams to win.
“All great quarterbacks — I’m not calling myself a great quarterback — just saying all the great quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have been a game manager of some sort, whether it’s knowing the clock, knowing the situation, when to take a sack, when to throw the ball away, when you can take a little more risk, when not to,” McCarron said.
McCarron is aware he’s still got a lot to learn while leading Cincinnati into the playoffs. The Bengals have clinched a playoff berth and would win the AFC North with a victory or a Steelers loss this weekend.
New England (12-2) is in line to get the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Whoever wins at Denver (11-3) on Monday night will be in position for the No. 2 seed, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.
It could come down to how well McCarron does against a defense that’s ranked No. 1 against the run and against the pass — a rare combination in the NFL.
When Dalton broke his right thumb during a 33-20 loss to the Steelers two weeks ago, McCarron took over and threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown that put Pittsburgh in control.
“You make those mistakes, you’ve got to learn from them,” McCarron said. “In my situation, I’ve got to learn from them quick and play better.”
He was much better at San Francisco last Sunday, where he took sacks rather than risking an interception. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said the next step is to avoid the sacks and get rid of the ball rather than lose yards.
McCarron was 15 of 21 for 192 yards with one touchdown, four sacks and a passer rating of 115.6. Cincinnati finished with a season-low 242 net yards.
“I think it’s a heck of a challenge,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “A team that’s No. 1 in defense on the road with a backup quarterback, that is going to be a heck of a challenge for us. That’s great. That’s awesome. It’s fun.”
In addition to facing the league’s top-ranked defense, McCarron will be playing a cold-weather game. The two-time national champion at Alabama hasn’t had a lot of experience with the sub-freezing temperatures he’ll face on Monday.
“Going to prepare the same way,” the Alabama native said. “Instead of one long sleeve, I might just have two long sleeves. But I mean other than that, I think it’s pretty much the same way.
“It’s kind of weird because when you’re out there playing, it’s a lot different from when you’re standing on the sideline and you’re freezing and you’re trying to sit on the heater bench as long as possible or trying to stay warm any way possible. But when you’re out there playing, you stop thinking about it. You don’t even notice it until you go to the sideline and you kind of calm down a little and realize how cold it is.”
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