IRVING, Texas (AP) Andy Dalton was thriving, producing by far the best season of his five-year NFL career. The Cincinnati Bengals were cruising, putting themselves in prime position to finally register that first win in the playoffs since the 1990 postseason.
Then came the game against Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, the interception Dalton threw in the first quarter and his fateful contribution to the tackle that stopped Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
Dalton's thumb on his throwing hand was broken.
The Bengals and their Super Bowl goal were still intact, but with major collateral damage.
''We'll go week to week,'' coach Marvin Lewis said the day after Dalton was hurt, summing up the situation as a typical NFL coach would. ''I think that's about as good an outcome right now as we could expect.''
The Bengals were able to clinch the AFC North title on Sunday thanks to a loss by the Steelers, but without the ''Red Rifle'' the dynamic of their championship chase has changed, and not for the better. Dalton has flopped in the playoffs in each of his first four years, but he's the franchise quarterback, not A.J. McCarron. He's still third in the league in passer rating, having been intercepted only seven times in the 13 games he played in.
With the first-round bye still in play, the Bengals have held on to the hope that extra healing time for Dalton will bring him back at full strength for the stretch run. But there's no guarantee.
With this wildly unpredictable sport in a wildly unpredictable season, alas, guarantees are next to nonexistent.
There's hardly a bigger reason for that than injuries, that familiar lament in a league with participants too big, strong and fast to avoid them in such a violent game. From Cincinnati in the AFC to two-time defending NFC champion Seattle, there are teams heading toward the playoffs whose title bid has taken a hit because of the loss of some important players. Then there are the star-crossed clubs such as Baltimore and Dallas who couldn't even get going, at least partially due to the untimely absences of key cogs in their schemes.
Here's a glance at some of the teams most stung by injuries in the NFL this year:
When quarterback Tony Romo went down in the second game of the season, Dallas essentially did, too. The broken collarbone kept him out for two months and was reinjured on Thanksgiving Day, rendering the NFC East race moot for the Cowboys even with their competitors failing to take control of the diluted division.
Dez Bryant was hurt in the opener, a broken foot taking the dangerous wide receiver out of the mix. Then Lance Dunbar hurt his knee in Week 4, removing the change-of-pace running back from the game plan while they were still trying to figure out how to replace departed free agent DeMarco Murray.
Seattle has dodged the debilitating effect of star players getting hurt as well as any team, behind the brilliance of quarterback Russell Wilson. With running back Marshawn Lynch recovering from an abdominal injury since mid-November and rookie replacement Thomas Rawls done for the season because of a badly damaged ankle, the Seahawks are left for now with Fred Jackson and Christine Michael.
Lynch, the fulcrum of the team that won a championship two years ago and nearly repeated, could be back for the playoffs, but still carries an uncertain status. This suddenly soaring aerial attack, plus that star-studded defense, could be good enough to get Seattle back to the Super Bowl. But without Lynch and his power-running clone Rawls, that path will be a little less smooth.
As with the Cowboys, another expected contender for the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens, sent frustrated fans flocking to mock-draft websites for hints on which prospects will be the first-round picks in the spring. Linebacker Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon in the opener, setting the tone for a season in which they lost their starting quarterback (Joe Flacco), featured running back (Justin Forsett) and best wide receiver (Steve Smith).
Indianapolis is another team on track for an earlier-than-expected winter vacation. Quarterback Andrew Luck, who played in every game in his first three seasons while leading the Colts to 11-5 records and spots in the playoffs, hurt a shoulder, a kidney and an abdominal muscle. Backups Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst have since incurred injuries, too.
Tennessee had the second pick in the draft this year, selecting quarterback Marcus Mariota who played up to his lofty selection in a solid rookie season. But then he sprained each knee, missing the last three games, as the Titans lost all three while being outscored 64-19. Well, at least that first-round pick in the 2016 draft will be another high one.
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