Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bitter ending, new beginning for AJ McCarron as an NFL quarterback

First the Kick Six. Now this.

As a fan suggested on Twitter, AJ McCarron may lead the football world as a victim of"What just happened?" endings.

The former Alabama record-setter's best day in the NFL turned out to be one of the more bitter defeats in playoff history.

McCarron, getting his first playoff start in his second year in the league, trying to give the Bengals their first postseason win in 25 years, deserved better than Pittsburgh 18, Cincinnati 16.

"We were so close to giving this city what they deserve," he said in his postgame press conference. "For it to just not happen sucks. It's bad. Bad feeling."

Things went from good to bad in a terrible hurry Saturday night.

The Bengals trailed 15-0 to start the fourth quarter. Despite a rough start and rougher weather in a driving rain, McCarron led them on three straight scoring drives to take a 16-15 lead on his 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 1:50 left.

Cincinnati's seven-game playoff losing streak seemed over when Pittsburgh threw an interception on the first snap of its next possession. Then everything went wrong for the Bengals.

Running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball back to the Steelers. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict committed a personal foul with a vicious hit on a defenseless receiver after an incompletion. Defensive back Adam Jones added a dead-ball unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the emotional aftermath of that hit on a night when tempers flared throughout.

The penalties moved the Steelers in position to kick a 35-yard chip-shot field goal for the win. It also put the outspoken McCarron in position to throw his unfortunate and undisciplined teammates under the bus, but he declined.

Of Hill's fumble, McCarron said, "It's football. He didn't lose us that game."

Of the two personal fouls committed by Burfict and Jones, McCarron said, "I'm not here to throw shade at anybody. We win together, and we lose together. Simple as that.

"We need to have each other's backs during this process. That's the best way to take the next step leading into next year to be the best team we can possibly be. If we use this time to point fingers at each other, we're taking steps back as a team, and we don't need that."

McCarron also said it seemed to rain much harder when Cincinnati had the ball, but he could be forgiven that moment of foolishness given the raw emotion of the ending.

Someone asked McCarron if this was his toughest loss. He said it was in the NFL, and there can be no doubt. He overcame injuries of his own as a rookie a year ago to win the backup job, then took over when starter Andy Dalton suffered a broken thumb last month.

McCarron became the first Alabama quarterback to win an NFL regular-season game as a starter since Jeff Rutledge in 1987. He was the first Alabama quarterback to start a playoff game since Richard Todd in 1983.

He was less than 2 minutes away from winning that game when it all went wrong, but as badly as it ended, this was McCarron's best day in the NFL. He finished 23 of 41 for 212 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and he led a terrific fourth-quarter comeback from 15 points down.

He was a pro during and after the game. Everyone will remember the ending. Better to think of the entire night as just the beginning for McCarron.

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