CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton has started 80 consecutive games -- playoffs included -- since his career began in 2011.
But will he add to the streak with start No. 81? The answer to that question was uncertain in the moments immediately after the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-20 home loss on Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game that underwent a decided change after Dalton's first-quarter thumb injury ran him from the contest.
With their starting quarterback sidelined in one of the biggest games of their playoff chase, the Bengals' worst fears came to fruition. But it wasn't the only injury. All of a sudden, the Bengals are a battered bunch, with tight end Tyler Eifert also now working his way through a concussion that leaves his status for next week iffy.
What it means: The AFC North title the Bengals were hoping to clinch with a win Sunday will have to wait. They are still very much in control of the division and still sit a game from a playoff berth.
What were they thinking? If Dalton is hurt for any extended period of time, the following will go down as the most questionable play call of the season: On the play in which it appeared the quarterback was hurt, the Bengals called for a screen pass to running back Giovani Bernard, who seemed to chip defensive end Stephon Tuitt before breaking open underneath for a pass in goal-line territory. Bernard barely made contact with Tuitt, who bullied his way into the perfect position for an interception just as Dalton let go of the pass. In a quick attempt at tackling Tuitt, Dalton appeared to jam his right hand into the lineman's knee. The question is, with key red zone targets Eifert and A.J. Green as options on the drive, why did the Bengals attempt the short underneath pass? Had it worked and Dalton remained healthy, this question probably wouldn't be asked.
One reason to be excited: Again, much of this hinges upon Dalton's long-term prognosis, but the Bengals do have to at least be encouraged by what they saw from AJ McCarron. Thrust into meaningful action, the backup was solid, finishing 22-for-32 passing with 280 yards and two touchdowns. His 66-yard touchdown pass to Green, on only his fifth throw of the game, was a well-delivered strike that traveled 36 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Dalton has yet to throw a pass 30 yards in the air to Green this season.
One reason to panic: Based off social media, it's clear the "panic" has already set in for some Bengals fans. And can you blame them? Not only did the Bengals lose their starting quarterback early in the game to an injury, but one of their leading scorers was run from the ballgame, too. With a concussion, Eifert's status for next week won't be determined until he clears the protocol and is able to practice. Potentially without him and without Dalton, the offense would have quite the challenge to overcome. Cincinnati shouldn't panic too much, though. At least the Bengals have a date with the nine-loss 49ers next week.
Fantasy watch: Fantasy owners who thought they'd cash in with Eifert in the Bengals' two meetings with the Steelers were certainly disappointed in both weeks. After amassing just three points under ESPN's standard scoring system in the Nov. 1 meeting in Pittsburgh, he picked up only four points on Sunday. He certainly appeared to be building toward a big day after catching two passes for 42 yards on the opening drive. Green did have a strong outing for his fantasy owners, producing 19 points.
Ouch: You've read all about the main injuries above. There isn't much to add, other than to mention Vontaze Burfict's on-again, off-again status with head and neck injuries. He finished the contest despite coming in and out of the game multiple times. Safety George Iloka ended up leaving the game in the first half, apparently aggravating a groin injury that kept him out of the previous game in Cleveland.