Bills at Bengals: 5 storylines to watch in Sunday’s prime-time showdown

Credit: Joshua Bessex

Credit: Joshua Bessex

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals had the stadium rocking following a strong start the first 10 minutes of their Week 17 game last season against the Buffalo Bills before Damar Hamlin’s collapse halted play.

They didn’t get a chance to finish that one out, but three weeks later proved themselves the better team in a 27-10 win on the road in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Bills (5-3) return to Paycor Stadium for another primetime game tonight, and the Bengals (4-3) are hoping to recreate that electric atmosphere and replicate the fast starts they enjoyed in both matchups last season. Cincinnati was leading 7-3 and driving at midfield when the Jan. 2 game at home ended with 5:58 left in the first quarter, and the Bengals jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter in Buffalo during the playoff tilt.

Here are five things to know about the third matchup of the teams this calendar year:

1. Checking emotions

Both teams are certainly focused on the game but players and coaches from both teams acknowledged it will be difficult not to think about what happened Jan. 2 when Buffalo last visited Cincinnati.

Hamlin officially made his return to play Oct. 1 in the Bills’ win over the Miami Dolphins, but he’s only been active for that game. Fellow safety Jordan Poyer was inactive due to injury that day, paving the way for him to play, and he was limited to special teams.

Bills coach Sean McDermott said any decision to play Hamlin on Sunday would be a football decision and not one based on emotions. Hamlin has shared a lot of love for the people of Cincinnati who stepped up either in action to save him when he went into cardiac arrest or that shared words of support in his recovery. He said on teammate Von Miller’s “Voncast” that he’s ready for what certainly will be an emotional night for him.

“I think it’s going to be super-electric, and I think it’s going to be nothing but love,” Hamlin said. “Only thing I got to compare it to is just going back into our stadium and how much love and reception it is. Going back into there, I’m pretty sure it’ll be like a bunch of memories, which will make it emotional for me. But, I ain’t running from it. I’m ready to walk through the fire.”

2. Test for Bengals offense

Cincinnati’s offense played its best game of the season last week against a good San Francisco defense and now will be looking to keep the momentum going against a Buffalo defense that has limited opponents to just 17.0 points per game (ranked third best) and just 204.1 passing yards per game (ranked 10th).

The Bills are relying on young linebackers since the free agent departure of Tremaine Edmunds in the offseason and the recent season-ending injury to Matt Milano, but the Bills feature one of the strongest safety tandems in the league with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.

“They’re great at disguising their coverages,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “You can tell on film that they’re always communicating with all their guys trying to make sure everybody’s on the same page because they do a lot of stuff. So you can tell that’s their role. And then they’re really good players that make plays. They’re good tacklers. It’s gonna be a challenge.”

McDermott took over the defense with the departure of coordinator Leslie Frazier during the offseason.

3. Changes coming at tight end?

Irv Smith’s redzone fumble last week fortunately didn’t end up costing the Bengals the game, but the mistake might cost future opportunities. Cincinnati hasn’t been getting the kind of production out of the tight end spot the team has seen in past seasons, and Smith has just 57 yards on 10 catches in five games.

Smith caught three passes from Burrow in the first half Sunday, but the third reception on first-and-goal from the 3-yard line was the one he fumbled. After that, he was targeted just one more time on a screen pass on third-and-13.

On Wednesday, the Bengals signed tight end Tanner Hudson off the practice squad and the timing doesn’t seem simply coincidental with a spot opening with running back Chase Brown going on injured reserve. Hudson looked to be the team’s best pass-catching option at tight end during training camp and now could get a chance to show it. He was elevated twice this season and has 48 yards on four catches.

“It means everything,” Hudson said. “It just shows that they’re trusting me to prepare and be able to go out there and use my talents to help this team win.”

4. Slowing an explosive Bills offense

When the Bills are clicking on offense, they are tough to stop. In four of their five wins, they have scored 24 points or more, and three of those, they registered at least 37 points. They average 27.8 points per game.

Cincinnati held San Francisco, which was the league’s second-highest scoring offense, to 10 points last week and it helped the offense was playing with a lead. The Bengals ended up with three takeaways on defense, including back-to-back interceptions in the second half when Brock Purdy was trying to rally his offense.

Josh Allen has 2,165 yards passing and 17 touchdowns, while completing a league-best 71.7 percent of his pass attempts, but he also has the second-most interceptions with eight through seven games. Stefon Diggs is one of the league’s top receivers.

“(They’re) really explosive,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “Obviously, it starts with the quarterback. He’s so big and strong and can make all the throws and is fearless, and can make plays with his feet that really are back-breaker plays. And then you add in all the skill players around him, at receiver, at tight end, at (running) back. They’ve got good linemen. They do a really good job playing to those guys’ strengths.”

5. Injury concerns

The Bengals will be missing a key piece to their interior defensive line rotation as Josh Tupou is out with a shoulder injury.

Otherwise, they should be in a good spot health wise in terms of starters. Joe Mixon was limited Wednesday by a chest injury but was a full participant Thursday and Friday and is expected to play Sunday despite being listed as questionable. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither (knee) and backup guard Max Scharping (knee) were limited in practice Friday and are questionable. Safety Tycen Anderson went on injured reserve Friday with a season-ending ACL tear.

Buffalo will only be missing two backup linebackers from their active roster, as A.J. Klein (back) and Baylon Spector (hamstring) are out. The Bills have been without Milano, an All-Pro linebacker, and defensive lineman DaQuan Jones since they both suffered surgery-requiring injuries in Week 5. Cornerback Tre’Davious White suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in Week 4.


Bills at Bengals, 8:20 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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