Odds are high that will still be the case after the regular season ends Sunday. But even if the Bengals are forced to enter the first round of the playoffs with McCarron behind center, they are confident the backup can do something that no quarterback since Boomer Esiason has done: lead the Bengals to a playoff victory.
"Oh, there's no question in my mind that we can win a playoff game with AJ McCarron," longtime Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "He has enough leadership and character."
The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
McCarron has been Cincinnati's quarterback since Week 14, when he entered in the second quarter of a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the Bengals' opening drive, starter Andy Dalton broke his right thumb while attempting a tackle after throwing an interception near the goal line. He isn't expected to return until possibly the divisional round of the playoffs.
During the open portion of Wednesday's practice, Dalton went through a few side conditioning exercises for the first time since his injury. He still sported the black cast that's been around his right hand.
With Dalton out, McCarron has led the Bengals to a 1-1 record in games he's started. He lost Monday night's game at Denver when he accidentally took his eyes off the football as center Russell Bodine snapped to him on a play in the middle of overtime. After the ball slipped through his hands, McCarron was unable to recover the fumble. Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware did, sealing Denver's 20-17 victory.
"The most important thing for a quarterback is how the guys feel in the huddle with him, and the confidence that they have around him," Whitworth said. "There's not a guy that doesn't doubt that [McCarron's] going to come in and give us the best he's got, and he's going to make good decisions and those kinds of things. That's probably one of the strongest suits is his leadership."
Veteran linebacker Rey Maualuga agreed.
"He's a special kid. Everyone knows that," Maualuga said. "I don't think anybody had any doubts in his playmaking abilities. He's showed flashes of how good he could be."
In the last three games, McCarron has thrown for 672 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. The former Alabama quarterback enters Sunday's finale against the Ravens with a 67.4 completion rating this season.
"Having played for the guy myself, I'm sure he's learned a lot from Coach [Nick] Saban," said Whitworth, who played for Saban at LSU. "[McCarron] gets leadership. He gets getting guys around him to play well for him to look good. He gets all of that. The first thing he did this week was that he took the offensive line to dinner when we landed in Denver. That was important to him. He just wanted to do something to say, 'Hey, man, I know I'm going to have success based off of y'all.'"