CINCINNATI -- When AJ McCarron was thrown into the NFL fire three weeks ago, playing his first meaningful reps as the Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback in the immediate wake of Andy Dalton's thumb injury, he was simply trying to keep the offense afloat.
McCarron's focus that day? Move the chains as often as possible, get the offense on the scoreboard and keep the turnovers to a minimum. As the scout-team quarterback in the days leading up to the Dec. 13 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he wasn't part of the original game plan and had no way of truly fitting what Cincinnati had initially hoped to accomplish.
Two weeks and two game plans tailored specifically for him later, McCarron has shown glimpses of the type of quarterback the Bengals believed he could be when they selected him to be their backup in the fifth round of the 2014 draft.
How different, then, does McCarron look now compared to his Week 14 relief outing?
"Night and day," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "When he first took over, he walked off the sideline after the starter got hurt. That's different. You just go in there and play and you wing it and you do things. Now it's about the process through the week of getting ready to play that builds up to the game, and then you walk out there first. That's a different set of pressure, a different set of anxiety. That's a different set of everything."
Just how has McCarron handled those different circumstances in the two games he has started?
"Extremely well," Jackson said. "Now what we have to do is continue to grow in that process so that we're playing really good football for four quarters."
Although the Bengals are 1-1 in the games McCarron has started while Dalton has been out, in both of them the offense became stagnant after halftime. At San Francisco two weeks ago, the offense scored just three second-half points after putting up 21 in the first half. Cincinnati held on to win 24-14. At Denver on Monday night, the offense manufactured a 14-3 halftime lead but couldn't execute on a few potential scoring plays in the second half. The Bengals ultimately lost 20-17 in overtime.
Jackson pinned the second-half troubles on himself and vowed to make sure the offense plays a complete game Sunday, when the Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens in the regular-season finale.
Regardless, the Bengals are proud of the offensive growth McCarron has engineered the past three weeks.
"We're building. We're getting confidence in him, he's getting confidence in us," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "There are still things that are going to be off between us and him, but he's continuing to grow and he's done a tremendous job. He's a great leader. The one thing I can say about AJ as a young player is that he gets leadership."
None of that comes as a surprise to head coach Marvin Lewis.
When he observed Alabama's pro day two years ago, Lewis spent the day talking to people around the football program there to see what made McCarron tick. He has since seen for himself the things he was told then.
"I got a chance to spend all last season standing with him when he was on PUP [physically unable to perform list]," Lewis said. "I'm telling him the play, and he's telling me the quarterback's progression. Those are things I really felt good about.
"He's had a tough go to get to where he is. But you know what? He kept working at it, and it's not too big for him and he keeps handling it."