The Cincinnati Bengals never felt they needed to prove anything after making the Super Bowl last year and returning the bulk of their starters from that roster. Yet, it was the Buffalo Bills earning all the attention as the team to beat in the AFC this season.
Now the two teams finally meet to see who advances in the playoffs, three weeks after their regular-season matchup was halted and eventually cancelled because of Damar Hamlin’s on-field collapse in the first quarter.
Second-seeded Buffalo hosts third-seeded Cincinnati on Sunday in a divisional round game to determine who moves on to the AFC Championship. Here are five things to know about the game.
1. Charged and ready to go
These two teams bonded after watching Hamlin need resuscitated in cardiac arrest and taken by ambulance to the hospital in critical condition, but now that he’s recovering, both the Bills and Bengals have their own motivations.
Buffalo carries the reminder of hardships endured in its local community through a racially-charged shooting at a supermarket, a blizzard that killed dozens and, of course, the near loss of a teammate in Hamlin.
The Bengals have felt slighted since an 0-2 start had outsiders writing them off, but even more so since the league’s handling of the cancelled game against Buffalo. The NFL owners voted for neutral sites in situations that seemed to benefit everyone but the Bengals, even though their chance to pass the Bills in the standings was stripped by the cancellation. Now the oddsmakers even have them as 5.5-point underdogs.
“We got a game to play on Sunday, right? So you can’t count us out,” running back Joe Mixon said. “We’re going to go out there on Sunday and do what the (heck) we gotta do to get that dub. Then we’re going to see what they’re talking about.”
2. Turnovers are key
Cincinnati’s defense made a name for itself in the playoffs last year with nine takeaways, including interceptions in the final minute or in overtime to seal the game or set up the game-winning drives en route to the Super Bowl.
That knack for big plays hasn’t changed, and the Bengals’ success producing takeaways especially is relevant against a Bills offense that has nine turnovers in the last three games. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen leads the league in turnover-worthy plays, and the Bills had 27 turnovers (third most) in 16 regular-season gmaes.
The Bengals are a team that can take advantage. They won their wild card game against the Ravens when Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson forced Tyler Huntley to fumble near the goal line and Sam Hubbard recovered for a 98-yard touchdown return.
3. Red zone success
Both teams pride themselves on being great in the red zone, but something has to give. The Bengals at one point scored on 17 straight red zone trips this season, and they still rank fifth with touchdowns on 64.9 percent of their appearances inside the 20-yard line. There is only one team better than the Bills in red zone defense, as they have allowed touchdowns on 44.9 percent of trips inside the 20.
“The way they play defense they try to keep everything in front and limit the big plays, and when you get down into the red zone that style of defense is really effective because you shorten the field and they can play a lot more aggressive in their zones,” Burrow said. “And like you said, they have really good players as well.”
The Bengals rank middle of the pack in yards allowed per game but have thrived in the red zone defensively while limiting opponents to field goals or no scores on 48 percent of trips inside the 20. Buffalo’s offense scores touchdowns on 60.3 percent of its red zone appearances.
It’s also notable that Burrow has just one turnover in the red zone this season.
4. More offensive line changes
The Bengals lost left tackle Jonah Williams to a dislocated knee cap in the wild card game, and he remains out this week, as does Alex Cappa, who injured his left ankle in the regular-season finale. With right tackle La’el Collins on injured reserve, that is three starters missing, but the Bengals survived with arguably the worst offensive line in the league last year and have better faith in their backups this season.
Jackson Carman replaced Williams after his second-quarter exit last week and looks to be in line for his first start since last season when he played right guard but couldn’t hold onto the job. Isaiah Prince was expected to be activated Saturday and could be available if needed in a pinch. Hakeem Adeniji and Max Scharping have stepped in the last couple weeks at right tackle and right guard, respectively.
Burrow gets the ball out of his hands faster than anyone else in the league, so he’s prepared to handle pressure if needed, but more out of the running game could help as well. The Bengals haven’t had more than 73 yards rushing in any of the last four games.
“It’s always going to help that group, especially with new players, if we can run the ball with some efficiency and feel good about it,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “I will say at this time of year when it comes down to it, we’ll probably try to put the ball in Burrow’s hands as much as possible, because that’s just what is going to win us games. The run game is huge part of that. We do have to be better than we’ve been the last couple of weeks to allow those guys to have some success on the ground so you just don’t get pass rushed every play.”
Credit: Nick Graham
Credit: Nick Graham
5. Watching the secondaries
The Bengals’ potent passing attack, led by Burrow and wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, will put the Bills’ young, battered secondary to the test, but the same could be said on the flip side.
Allen, Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis will be going after Cincinnati’s cornerbacks, particularly trying to take advantage of matchups with rookie Cam Taylor-Britt. Eli Apple has been the teams No. 1 cornerback since Chidobe Awuzie tore his ACL, and Tre Flowers also is doubtful with a hamstring injury. Dax Hill will be charged, in that case, with stopping tight end Dawson Knox, which is no easy task.
“I think they both had their moments good and bad,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said of his cornerbacks. “I think everybody saw Eli’s play where he got beat on the double move (to allow a touchdown last week), but he also had a couple of plays where he set the edge in the run game and the same with Cam. He had a couple of penalties, but was physical. They’re our guys, keep rolling. They’re getting better each week and it would be important if they play good the rest of the way.”
Buffalo’s secondary has been dealing with injuries all season but is expected to be mostly full-go Sunday. Cornerback Tre’Davious White has been playing most of the snaps the past five games since easing back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of the 2021 season, and cornerback Dane Jackson returned to full participation in practice Thursday and Friday after injuring his knee last weekend. Safety Jordan Poyer is playing through a series of injuries, and opposite of him, the Bills are down to their third option with Micah Hyde (neck) still not ready to return to action and Hamlin on injured reserve.
Snow could be a factor for both offenses Sunday but Burrow doesn’t expect it to be an issue.
Bengals at Bills, 3 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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