Cincinnati Bengals (-6, 40.5 o/u) at San Francisco 49ers
Well that was rotten luck, and not just for Cincy, but for NFL fans on the whole.
After roaring to a 10-2 start and looking poised to challenge the Patriots for top-seed in the AFC, the Cincinnati Bengals (10-3, 5-1 road) lost starting QB Andy Dalton to a broken thumb last Sunday. Now Alabama product AJ McCarron will have to make his first career start as the Bengals head to the Bay Area to face the San Francisco 49ers (4-9, 3-3 home) at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday (4:30 PM Eastern).
In a way, McCarron lucked out. The Niners are in the midst of a rebuild and don’t boast the same ferocious defense they have in the very recent past. That said, they have been much better at home than on the road, averaging 15.8 points against at Levi’s Stadium versus 30-plus away.
But McCarron got lucky in more ways than just his opponent. He’ll be flanked by a dynamic receiving corps and protected by a solid offensive line. Many pundits have called Cincinnati the deepest team in the NFL, and you can be sure head coach Marvin Lewis will be relying on every fathom of that depth come Sunday.
The second-year QB isn’t entirely without NFL experience heading into Week 15. Dalton was actually forced from last week’s game in the first quarter, meaning McCarron has three-quarters of a game under his belt already. Though he couldn’t keep pace with the Steelers (losing 33-20), he showed flashes, throwing for 280 yards and two scores. He also threw two costly interceptions, though, and will need to take better care of the football if Cincy is going to survive Dalton’s injury.
For the Niners, this week’s game is about re-establishing some momentum. The team was able to pick up its first road win of the year in Week 13, surprising the Bears 26-20 in OT. But they laid an egg last weekend, getting hammered by the Browns, 24-10, in Cleveland.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who’d long been considered a draft bust after being selected tenth overall by the Jaguars in 2011, has found a new lease on life in San Francisco. He replaced Colin Kaepernick in Week 9 and has gone 2-3 as the starter with 1,157 yards on a 63.2-percent completion rate. He’s also been much less pick-happy than his predecessor, limiting the damage to three INTs over his five starts (two of which came in his first game).
The former Missouri Tiger has also impressed with his feet, scampering for 159 yards on just 22 rushes (7.7 yards per carry). That includes a key 44-yard TD run that spurred his team to the win in Chicago.
Gabbert’s dual-threat abilities have been big for the Niners as running back Carlos Hyde remains on the shelf. His replacement, Shaun Draughn, hasn’t been able to find much success on the ground, meaning Gabbert’s running abilities are necessary to keep defenses honest.
Assuming you don’t have to throw out all of Cincy’s results now that Dalton is sidelined, the trends favor the Bengals. They are 10-2-1 ATS on the year, including a perfect 6-0 on the road. The Niners, meanwhile, are 6-7 against the number, but a decent 4-2 at home.
Gabbert has been a nice story, but you may have seen signs of regression last week in Cleveland (18 of 28 for just 196 yards), and that was against one of the league’s worst defenses. McCarron aside, the Bengals still have a top-notch D that has given better QBs fits. Put your faith in that unit to lead Cincy to a cover.
Pick: Bengals (-6).
(Photo credit: emeybee (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped.)