AJ McCarron gets 1st start, Bengals try to clinch vs 49ers

Cincinnati Bengals

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – AJ McCarron remembers most of the things about his first college start at Alabama in 2011, especially his two interceptions in a 48-7 win over Kent State.

First starts are unforgettable.

So will be the Cincinnati Bengals’ game on Sunday at San Francisco with a chance to clinch their second AFC North title in three years and fifth straight playoff berth. The second-year quarterback gets to make his first NFL start in place of the injured Andy Dalton.

He had his first significant playing time last Sunday when Dalton broke his right thumb during a 33-20 loss to the Steelers. McCarron, a two-time national champion at Alabama, threw a pair of interceptions in a showing that reminded him of that game against Kent State.

“It was just an unreal experience, kind of like Sunday was,” McCarron said.

In addition to leading the Bengals (10-3) to the playoffs, McCarron has a chance to end a long streak of ‘Bama futility when he faces the 49ers (4-9). No quarterback from Alabama has won an NFL start since Jeff Rutledge in 1987.

“As for the history? That’s history,” McCarron said.

Oh, the Niners know McCarron’s history all right.

“You go back to the preseason games and you’re obviously aware of him from his college career,” coach Jim Tomsula said. “He’s a talented guy. He can throw the football. He can run their offense, you know that.”

It’s doubtful San Francisco will have a problem with overlooking an opponent this week, as a couple of players said might have been the case at lowly Cleveland last week, when linebacker Ahmad Brooks suggested his team might have been “big-headed” in the 24-10 defeat.

Here are five things to watch for Sunday:

THAT ‘BAMA DROUGHT: In the past 25 years, Alabama has won four national championships and seven SEC titles, produced two Heisman Trophy winners and hundreds of NFL players – but no winning NFL quarterback. Since Rutledge led the Giants to a 20-14 win over the Eagles in 1987, Alabama quarterbacks are 0-13 in NFL starts – Rutledge 0-2, Greg McElroy 0-1 and Brodie Croyle 0-10, according to STATS.

KEEP YOUR COOL: The Bengals lost their cool against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium, getting involved in a skirmish at midfield during pregame warm-ups. It carried over into a penalty-filled game that played to Pittsburgh’s advantage. Cincinnati gave up more than 10 points for only the second time in the last seven games.

“I feel like emotions kind of weighed over what we should have been doing,” said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the second play. “Just got to learn to control our emotions a little bit better.”

PROTECTING GABBERT: Nine sacks. The number is glaring – even if Blaine Gabbert caused three of them himself by running out of bounds.

“Nine sacks is unacceptable,” said left guard Alex Boone, who will miss Sunday’s game with a sprained MCL in his right knee and might be done for the year.

“I think it was an offensive thing. I think a lot of people are obviously going to think the offensive line sucks but at the end of the day when you watch the film, there’s 11 guys out there playing and everybody’s responsible to do their job.”

Gabbert takes his share of the blame, noting, “That game summed up that 11 guys need to be on the same page.”

RUN IT: The Bengals managed only 64 yards rushing against the Steelers, putting pressure on McCarron to throw a lot. Jeremy Hill had only 16 yards on seven carries – 12 of them on one play. The Browns ran for 230 yards against the 49ers last Sunday, something the Bengals would like to emulate with a young quarterback.

“I think it’s huge,” said Hill, who hasn’t run for 100 yards in a game this season. “This time around hopefully we can dictate the tempo of the game and get some play-action and get some run game going and make his job a lot easier.”

DEFENSIVE DOINGS: San Francisco’s front seven met Wednesday as a unit and held an open discussion about the mistakes and timing issues the 49ers had last week.

The 49ers gave up 481 yards to the 3-10 Browns – Cleveland’s second-highest offensive total of the season.

“Last game we were out of position a lot of the times and that’s why they had so many yards,” Brooks said. “It was one particular play they had in the game where it looked like he couldn’t get through the gap but he squirted through the gap somehow, some way. It was just little things like that we need to correct.”

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Kay contributed from Cincinnati.

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AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

12/18/2015 5:32:17 PM (GMT -5:00)

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