Cincinnati (5-3) never trailed in the first meeting of the teams at Paycor Stadium since Jan. 2 when Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse halted the 2022 Week 17 game in the first quarter. Hamlin was a healthy scratch Sunday but was at the game.
Here are three takeaways from Cincinnati’s win:
1. Tight ends answer call
The trade deadline last week led to increased chatter on the outside about how the Bengals weren’t getting enough production out of their tight ends, and Irv Smith Jr.’s redzone fumble last week at San Francisco only added fuel to those conversations.
However, Sunday provided an opportunity for that position group to show they could perform. All four of the tight ends on the 53-man roster were active Sunday and utilized, and two of them accounted for both of Joe Burrow’s passing touchdowns.
Smith made back-to-back catches to cap the opening drive, hauling in a 7-yard touchdown pass to give the Bengals the lead, and fellow tight end Drew Sample caught a bubble screen he took in for a 22-yard touchdown to extend the gap to 21-7 going into halftime.
“For us, we know the room we have, and we’re always ready for our opportunities,” Sample said. “It doesn’t always come. We have really good receivers, really good backs, so just try to capitalize on those chances when we get them and this was one of those games where we had opportunities, we made plays and we were able to go with that. I love our room. (Tight ends coach) James (Casey) is amazing. We do a little bit of everything and what this offense needs, and tonight found some holes in the defense and were able to make plays.”
Tanner Hudson, who was signed off the practice squad Wednesday, finished with four catches for 45 yards, Sample had three catches for 30 yards and Smith added 26 yards on three receptions, while Mitchell Wilcox played but didn’t have a target.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said “that’s just where the ball went,” but Casey received a game ball for how ready he had the tight ends. Cincinnati knew Buffalo would be leaving some space underneath while worrying about receivers like Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, and that could lead to a big day for the tight ends. Higgins still managed 110 yards on eight catches, but Chase had just four catches for 41 yards.
2. Defense gets key stops
The Bengals defense continued to do what it does best, making stops in the redzone and creating turnovers.
Cam Taylor-Britt intercepted Josh Allen in the second quarter, and nothing came of it, but Cincinnati held the Bills to a field goal after they reached the 16-yard line on the opening drive of the second half and Nick Scott and Germaine Pratt combined on a turnover at the 12-yard line that might have made the difference in the game early in the fourth quarter.
Scott upended Dalton Kincaid as he was catching a pass to move into the redzone, and in the process Pratt punched the ball out for force the fumble. Scott landed on it, and the Bengals drove down for a field goal that gave them a 14-point lead.
“I was just trying to come down hill make a play, get guys on the ground, be physical,” Scott said. “I just saw the clip. It looked like he tried to jump, and it worked in our favor. I think Germaine Pratt is probably the best linebacker in the league at finding the ball, finding ways to get it off of people, so just that. I’m amazed at how slow that was from when you see the ball to when he knocks it.”
Buffalo responded with a touchdown drive to make it a six-point game with 3:32 left, but the Bengals were able to run out the clock after Joe Mixon’s third-down conversion. Scott said they just thrive in redzone situations, and he felt redeemed, to some extent, after Allen’s pump fake caused him to jump and miss a tackle right before the Bills quarterback ran in for their first-quarter touchdown.
3. Making statements
Taylor doesn’t call these statement wins, and quarterback Joe Burrow downplays the four-game winning streak by saying the only thing that matters is being “1-0 this week.”
However, the Bengals have beaten two defending division champions in back-to-back weeks, winning at San Francisco last week and beating Buffalo on Sunday, and Scott believes that says something to the rest of the AFC.
“All these games matter, but getting our foot back in the AFC, we wanted to make a statement and show everybody that we’re here to play and that we’re here to be a contender,” Scott said. “We just got to take it one game at a time.”
The Bengals are now in seventh in the AFC, with the rest of the AFC North among those ahead of them. Baltimore (7-2) is seeded second, with a Nov. 16 matchup against Cincinnati on the horizon, Pittsburgh (5-3) and Cleveland (5-3) are in fifth and sixth, respectively. Buffalo (5-4) dropped to No. 9.
Asked if he feels like his team is a championship contender again, Taylor said the Bengals can’t worry about that right now because they haven’t even crossed the midway point of the season. They’re focused now on Houston, their next opponent Sunday at Paycor Stadium.