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Bengals QB McCarron preparing to start despite Dalton having cast removed

| Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, 2:09 p.m.
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Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron scrambles out of the pocket against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 3, 2016, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis insisted injured quarterback Andy Dalton isn't likely to start Saturday night's AFC wild-card game against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals coach, seeking his first playoff victory, reiterated AJ McCarron is preparing to start. Dalton, who fractured his right thumb early in the Steelers' 33-20 win in Week 14, probably will be listed as the backup on the depth chart.

“(McCarron) is anxious for this opportunity,” Lewis said. “He knows that the hat is on his head.”

Dalton had the cast removed from his throwing hand earlier in the week. He said before Tuesday's practice he hadn't tried to throw the ball but feels confident he's progressing enough that he could play in the divisional playoff game if the Bengals (12-4) beat the Steelers (10-6).

“I'm just sticking with the process and trying to get back as soon as I can,” Dalton said. “I feel like (with) the stuff I've done, I've got good mobility.”

Like Lewis, Dalton sidestepped questions about the possibility of him playing if McCarron is ineffective.

“I want to be out there, but this team is built for this kind of stuff,” said Dalton, who led the Bengals to a 10-2 start before his injury. “AJ will do a good job when stuff happens.”

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson acknowledged he's kept the game plan simple for McCarron. But Jackson expects a more expansive game plan in the inexperienced quarterback's fourth start.

“We've had to change a little here and there,” Jackson said. “It's the same offense and same players other than our quarterback — as of right now. He's been in a tough game on a Monday night against a really good team (Denver). Obviously, that's a measuring stick because it says he can do it.

“I don't think any environment is too big for him.”

McCarron looked confident and comfortable in leading the Bengals to a 24-16 win over Baltimore in the regular-season finale Sunday. More importantly, he's put behind him an uneven performance against the Steelers, which included an interception that cornerback William Gay returned 23 yards for a touchdown.

“My mindset is that this is my offense,” said McCarron, who completed 22 of 32 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers. “If we play our game, chances are good for us. It helped having played the Steelers, but we still have to execute. The first couple of snaps reminded me of my first high school game, and I jokingly came to the sideline and asked (Jackson) if they had more than 11 people on the field.

“It definitely helps to have had the time and experience in between. I feel comfortable in the way we're taking care of the football.”

McCarron hasn't thrown an interception since leading the Bengals to a 24-14 win over San Francisco in his first career start. His 66.4 percent completion percentage is slightly better than Dalton's (66.1), but Cincinnati is averaging 21.3 points — five fewer than with Dalton.

Wide receiver Marvin Jones said he is impressed with how McCarron has assumed ownership of the offense.

“McCarron has gotten some good snaps and some good wins under his belt,” said Jones, whose 65 catches are second to A.J. Green's 86. “He has faced some pressure moments, which is good to have coming into games like these. He can feed off that kind of experience.”

McCarron, too, is fueled by his experiences at Alabama where he won three national championships, including two as the starter. Also, he understands what it's like to prepare for a rivalry game.

If the Bengals' past is a barometer, the numbers certainly favor the Steelers. The Bengals have lost six consecutive playoff games during Lewis' tenure.

“We're not living in the past,” McCarron said. “It's hard to get into the playoffs, so I'm living in the present moment.”

The Bengals might be a better team with Dalton. However, they're confident McCarron can handle the postseason pressure.

“Obviously, he's played in the biggest settings you can play in,” veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “Andy has been in AJ's ear to help him develop and know what to do.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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