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That’s life in the NFL: High-flying Bengals are laid low by injury to QB Andy Dalton

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton walks the sidelines in a cast on his throwing hand on Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton walks the sidelines in a cast on his throwing hand on Sunday.

(Frank Victores / Associated Press)

The NFL season was going too well for the Cincinnati Bengals, too smoothly for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season. While star players on other teams fell to injury, the Bengals navigated the first three-quarters of the season relatively unscathed, and stayed on track to potentially become the AFC’s top-seeded team.

But Sunday, adversity came knocking.

Quarterback Andy Dalton, with a chance to clinch the AFC North by beating Pittsburgh at home, suffered a broken thumb on his throwing hand while tackling a defensive lineman who had picked off his shovel pass. Dalton, in the midst of the best season of his career, left the game, returned with a cast, and will miss next week’s game against San Francisco and maybe more.

“Mentally, I’m fine,” said Dalton, whose team wound up losing to the Steelers, 33-20, but remains the division leader at 10-3. “It’s unfortunate it happened at this point in the season. I’m doing all right. There are a lot of people who are way worse off than I am.”

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It was a reminder, though, of how quickly the NFL season can turn, and how losing one player can have a huge impact on a team that’s otherwise solid at most positions.

The Carolina Panthers held their breath at least twice Sunday when quarterback Cam Newton and star tight end Greg Olsen were rattled by what at first appeared to be injuries. Both players shook off those jarring hits, though, and returned to action as the Panthers throttled Atlanta, 38-0, to clinch a first-round playoff bye and remain the league’s only undefeated team at 13-0.

“Don’t ease up on the gas,” said Newton, a leading candidate for most valuable player. ". . . We want to be considered finishers.”

Seattle running back Thomas Rawls is finished, done for the season with a broken ankle. He sustained the injury in the first quarter of a 35-6 win at Baltimore. The undrafted rookie had rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his six starts in place of the injured Marshawn Lynch.

Losing Rawls was a setback for the surging Seahawks, but not a huge one. Russell Wilson threw five touchdown passes, three of them to the scorching Doug Baldwin, who has scored eight times in the last three games.

The Seahawks are three games behind 11-2 Arizona in the NFC West but squarely in the hunt for a wild-card berth. Both Seattle and Minnesota are 8-5, at least two games better than the other wild-card contenders, and the Seahawks have the tiebreaker over the Vikings after beating them eight days ago.

Indianapolis, looking to stay in contention in the muddled AFC South, absorbed a painful one-two punch Sunday. Not only were the Colts blown out by Jacksonville, 51-16, putting an abrupt end to Indianapolis’ 16-game winning streak against division opponents, but Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had to leave the game because of a rib injury.

That came a week after the 40-year-old Hasselbeck — playing in place of the injured Andrew Luck — was knocked out of a game against Pittsburgh with a neck injury.

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Charlie Whitehurst replaced Hasselbeck, and suddenly a shaky Colts season is beginning to rattle apart.

“The last time we lost to them like this was 2006 and we went on to win the Super Bowl,” said outside linebacker Robert Mathis, referring to a 44-17 loss to the Jaguars. “You can climb from the bottom of the valley to the mountaintop. It can be done.”

Technically, it can be.

Realistically, the clock is winding down, the injuries are piling up, and the Colts are limping toward irrelevance.

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Brock rocked

When Cincinnati lost, Denver moved into the driver’s seat for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, seeing as the Broncos have beaten New England.

Well, that didn’t last long.

The Broncos were defeated at home by Oakland, 15-12, falling to their former defensive coordinator, Raiders Coach Jack Del Rio. It was the first loss for quarterback Brock Osweiler, who replaced the injured Peyton Manning and is the immediate future of the franchise.

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The game was a masterpiece for Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, who had five sacks to tie a club record set by Hall of Famer Howie Long.

The Raiders, who had minus-12 yards of offense in the first half, snapped an eight-game losing streak against Denver.

Lucky No. 13

The Panthers became the eighth team in the Super Bowl era to start 13-0. The previous seven all made the playoffs — as Carolina has — with five advancing to the Super Bowl, and three of them winning it all.

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Bouncing back

The most remarkable turnaround of the season belongs to Kansas City, which has rebounded from a 1-5 start to win its last seven for the AFC’s longest winning streak.

Sunday was a close one, with the Chiefs holding off San Diego, 10-3.

Kansas City is the second team in NFL history to win at least seven in a row immediately after losing at least five in a row. Only the 1970 Bengals did that.

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Seattle slew

Wilson has thrown for at least three touchdowns with no interceptions in four consecutive games. That ties him for the longest such streak with Tom Brady (2007), Manning (2013, ’14) and Aaron Rodgers (2014). Only Brady had more touchdowns (17) than Wilson (16) during their respective streaks.

Eastbound and down

There are still no winning teams in the NFC East, although Washington and Philadelphia took a step in that direction with victories Sunday. They are tied atop the division at 6-7, with the 5-7 New York Giants playing at Miami on Monday night. Dallas took another step backward Sunday with a loss at Green Bay.

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As unpredictable as this division has been, the ending should be wild. The Giants play host to undefeated Carolina next week, then are at Minnesota and home against Philadelphia.

Washington, which picked up its first road win of the season Sunday at Chicago, plays Buffalo, at Philadelphia and at Dallas.

Philadelphia has Arizona and Washington at home, before the finale at the Giants.

The real McCoy

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Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy, making his first return to Philadelphia after the Eagles traded him before the season, kissed the Eagles logo at midfield and hugged team owner Jeffrey Lurie but didn’t interact with Coach Chip Kelly.

McCoy, Philadelphia’s all-time leading rusher, was Buffalo’s lone captain for the game and was booed when he emerged from the visitors’ tunnel. He rushed for 74 yards in a 23-20 loss. He sprinted off the field afterward, skipping the postgame handshakes.

He reportedly slammed his helmet against the wall in frustration, yelled obscenities as he entered the locker room, and told reporters, “I got nothing to say.”

McCoy played well, as did quarterback Tyrod Taylor, except for his first interception since Week 4. However, the Bills were penalized 15 times for 101 yards, compared to five times for 55 yards for the Eagles.

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“I thought we were the better team, but obviously we got beat,” Bills Coach Rex Ryan said. “We have ourselves to blame.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer


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