CINCINNATI — Ja’Marr Chase was surprised to hear he ranks among the league’s top five receivers in red zone targets, catches and yards despite missing five games.
The Cincinnati Bengals receiver didn’t even realize he was getting the ball that often inside the 20-yard line, but despite having one game canceled and sitting out four games because of a hip injury, he still ranks first in red zone receiving yards and fourth in red zone catches and targets.
He leads the league in all those areas when it comes to per-game stats, and his success in the red zone could be a key as the Bengals face the second-seeded Bills in the AFC Divisional Round on Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y.
“I need to be called the best receiver in this game already,” Chase said when told about those stats. He credited his red-zone success to the coaches putting him in good spots, moving him around to the slot a lot more, and him taking advantage of opportunities.
Chase has surprised quite a few teams with his ability to stretch the field but also be effective in smaller spaces. The Bills saw what kind of playmaker he is when the Bengals went deep to him on the first play of their Week 17 matchup, which was halted by Damar Hamlin’s medical emergency with six minutes left in the first quarter and eventually cancelled.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White was called for pass interference, a 29-yard penalty, and five plays later, the Bengals scored on a 14-yard pass from Joe Burrow to Tyler Boyd.
Buffalo will likely be better prepared for plays like that, despite the small sample size they got in Week 17, but the Bills may not be ready for all the other things Chase does well. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who had an interview Friday with the Colts for their vacant head coach position, said it usually takes a full game or two for opponents to understand how to defend Chase. The Bills had less than nine minutes to learn from their last matchup.
Chase, Tee Higgins and Boyd will be in the spotlight once again as they try to help Joe Burrow and the offense pick up where they left off in that regular-season game before it , was called. Cincinnati was driving near midfield when Hamlin collapsed.
“We started off making a statement, throwing a deep ball first play of the game,” Chase said. “I think that right there really got us lit. The receivers were ready for it, we had a great week of practice. We’ve got to go back into that, same great week of practice going back into the game, but it probably won’t be the same game plan.”
Chase and Higgins both topped 1,000 yards receiving for the second year in a row, and Boyd isn’t far behind. They will be going up against one of the best defenses in the league this week. Buffalo has overcome a slew of injuries in its secondary to still limit opponents to 17.9 points per game and just 319.1 yards per game.
In separate interviews this week, Chase and Higgins both expressed how confident they are going in, and the opponent doesn’t matter.
“I just put up how many stats with four missed games?” Chase said when asked why he should be considered the best receiver in the league. “I’m leading in redzone receptions (per game). ... If I didn’t miss those four games, I probably would have a year like Justin Jefferson (1,809 yards receiving). Who knows what would have happened?”
“I’ve been thinking it all along, I’m just not no cocky person,” Chase added. “I’m humble and I know what I can do, I don’t need to prove it to everybody. Everybody knows what I can do.”
Higgins had two of his best games in the playoffs last year, topping 100 yards in both the AFC Championship and Super Bowl. When asked what he remembers most about last year’s Super Bowl run, he said he will never forget the big catches he made against Kansas City to help the Bengals rally for an overtime win in the AFC Championship.
Performances like that give him an extra boost going into a game like Sunday’s against a top defense.
“The utmost confidence,” Higgins clarified. “Going in and knowing that I can’t be stopped. That’s my mindset every single time going into a game.”
The Bills defense is led in large part by Pro Bowl safety Jordan Poyer, who is coming off an ankle injury but expected to play. Fortunately for Burrow and the retooled offensive line, pass-rush leader Von Miller is out with a knee injury, but the defensive line of Greg Rousseau, Ed Oliver, DaQuan Jones and Shaq Lawson have stepped up and will be looking to force Burrow into quicker reads.
Cincinnati’s offense won’t just be going up against a talented defense. The Bengals have to worry about keeping up with an explosive Bills offense, led by Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs.
“Those guys are really talented,” Higgins said. “They got a great quarterback over there that’s giving them great balls and they’re coming down with the plays. We’re doing the same over here.”
Bengals at Bills, 3 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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