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CINCINNATI (AP) — A Bengals teammate lightly tossed a ball to AJ McCarron, who stuck out both hands to make the catch. With that simple gesture, the quarterback showed he's ready to finish the regular season.
McCarron used his left hand during a light practice Wednesday, an indication that he won't be limited much by a sore wrist on his nonthrowing arm. He hurt the wrist while trying to regain his game-ending fumble during a 20-17 overtime loss in Denver on Monday night.
He was cleared to practice after his wrist was examined Tuesday.
"I feel I'm a pretty mentally tough guy," the two-time national champion at Alabama said. "I've had to play through a lot of injuries, so I think I'll be fine."
McCarron's injury threw a scare into the Bengals (11-4), who lost Andy Dalton to a broken thumb on his passing hand Dec. 13. Dalton has a cast on the hand but did some agility drills on the side of the field Wednesday. He's hoping the fracture heals in time for the playoffs.
It's up to McCarron to lead the Bengals into the postseason. During the game in Denver, he showed he's capable of playing well in big games. McCarron led Cincinnati on touchdown drives of 80 and 90 yards to open the game, going 9 of 11 for 84 yards with a touchdown and a pair of scrambles for 22 yards.
"He's a special kid," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "Everyone knows that. When Andy went down, everyone said that he's been in a lot of tough games, he's come from a winning history. I don't think anybody had doubts in his playmaking abilities. He's showed flashes of how good he can be."
McCarron has gotten better each week. He was rusty and threw a pair of interceptions after taking over for Dalton during a 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh. He didn't have a turnover or make a big mistake during a 24-14 win at San Francisco, after he'd had a week to practice with the starting offense.
McCarron finished 22 of 35 for 200 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions at Denver, facing the league's top-ranked defense.
"I think it's a huge difference," McCarron said. "The more (practice) I get, the more comfortable I am and the more chemistry we create as an offense. It felt good on Monday. Hopefully, it just keeps getting better and better."
The Broncos played man-to-man defense in the first half, and McCarron took advantage. They played more zone coverages in the second half and took advantage of his inexperience, holding the Bengals to a field goal.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said McCarron's inexperience has shown in the second half of games when defenses switch things around. McCarron missed all of his rookie season with a sore shoulder and had little on-field experience before Dalton got hurt.
The loss gave Denver (11-4) the head-to-head tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed and a bye in the playoffs. The Bengals have won the AFC North and could still get the No. 2 seed if they beat the Ravens and the Broncos lose at home to San Diego on Sunday.
It's unclear whether Dalton could be ready if the Bengals finish with the No. 3 seed and have to play a first-round game. For now, are getting McCarron ready for it.
"The pressure of doing things correctly all the time for 60-65 plays in a game, you grow to that," Jackson said. "That's just not given; you earn that, you work through that. He's busting his tail and he's doing everything I've asked him to do. Eventually that's going to come. We just need it to come as fast as it can because the season's going to turn into a different season here pretty quick."
Notes: TE Tyler Eifert was cleared from the concussion protocol after missing the last two games and participated in the light practice Wednesday. He expects to play against the Ravens. "I'm feeling good, I'm cleared and I'm ready to play," he said. ... FB Ryan Hewitt was held out of practice after injuring his knee in Denver. ... S George Iloka (groin), DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) and WR Marvin Jones (hamstring) were limited.
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