AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — The Bengals are preparing quarterback AJ McCarron to lead them into the playoffs, where they haven’t won a game in 25 years.
He’ll be facing the team that knocked him around only three weeks ago.
And that’s not the only ominous part of Cincinnati’s return to the playoffs.
The AFC North champions (12-4) are back in the playoffs for the fifth straight season, a run of success unmatched in club history.
They’ve lost in the first round each of the past four seasons, a run of futility unmatched in NFL history.
Overall, the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, a 25-year streak of futility that’s the sixth-longest in league history. And now it’s McCarron instead of injured starter Andy Dalton practicing with the offense to start the week.
No pressure there.
“Regardless of Andy’s status, we’re going to go — right now, at least, the early part of the week — preparing with AJ,” coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday. “It’s important for the football team.”
Dalton was leading the league in passer rating when he broke his right thumb while making a tackle against the Steelers on Dec. 13 at Paul Brown Stadium. McCarron took over and threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
The Steelers dominated in a 33-20 win that left a mark on the Bengals. They dropped two of their last four games, missing out on a chance for a first-round bye that would have given Dalton another week to heal.
McCarron’s biggest improvement in his three starts was avoiding the interception, although he fumbled a snap in overtime that ended a 20-17 loss in Denver. Lewis wants him to get as much practice time as possible to prepare for the rematch with Pittsburgh.
“We felt good about his decision-making those (last) three games,” Lewis said. “We weren’t as thrilled with some of his decisions his first opportunity. He’s progressed.”
He’s facing long odds, too. The last quarterback to start and win a playoff game after making three or fewer NFL starts was Gifford Nielsen, who led the Oilers to a road playoff victory in San Diego during the 1979 season, according to STATS.
The only one under more pressure than McCarron is Lewis, who is 0-6 in the postseason. His teams have done so poorly in the playoffs that he’s compared himself to Susan Lucci, the television soap star who was nominated 19 times before finally winning an Emmy.
Asked what a playoff win would mean to him personally, Lewis said, “One-and-six. That’s all. It’s important to win and move on.”
What they’re trying to move beyond:
— The Bengals are the only team in NFL history to lose opening-round games in four straight seasons.
— Lewis is tied with the Giants’ Steve Owen (1939-50) for most consecutive playoff losses with one team.
— Lewis and Jim Mora are tied for most consecutive playoff losses to start a career.
— Lewis is tied with Marty Schottenheimer, Mora and Owen for most consecutive playoff losses at any point in a head coaching career.
And then there’s Dalton, whose four straight opening-round losses are tied with Warren Moon for the NFL record. It appears the Bengals will have to beat the Steelers with McCarron in order to give Dalton a chance to put his personal streak on the line later in the playoffs.
Beating the Steelers alone would be a breakthrough, as Pittsburgh is 14-3 all time at Paul Brown Stadium. That includes the Steelers’ 31-17 playoff win in the 2005 season.
Carson Palmer tore ligaments in his left knee and dislocated his kneecap when he was hit by Kimo von Oelhoffen on his first throw of the game, the only time the Ohio River rivals have met in the playoffs.
And here they are again, a totally different Bengals team trying to break out of the same, sad history.
“There’s not a correlation,” Lewis said. “Each and every time out there’s a new opportunity. It’s new folks, new faces, and a new situation.”