CINCINNATI — Joe Burrow said he never feels like an underdog, but he enjoys the chance to go on the road in the playoffs, where “it’s just you and your guys, and it feels like it’s you against the world.”
That’s where these Cincinnati Bengals like to be. They went through the playoffs last year as the “underdog,” and they are back in that role heading into the AFC Divisional Round matchup at second-seeded Buffalo on Sunday.
The Bills, picked by most national pundits in the preseason as the team to beat in the AFC, went into this week as 3.5-point favorites, according to BetOnline.ag, and they statistically rank among the best in the league in most major categories. Buffalo has the second-best scoring offense, second-most productive offense in net yardage and the second-best defense in terms of points allowed.
Cincinnati, riding a nine-game winning streak into Highmark Stadium on Sunday, hasn’t been at its best offensively but has continued to find ways to win and still remains confident.
“Our guys feel that they don’t get the same respect as the top teams out there,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “We feel like we are just as good as anybody in football. We’ll go play with anybody at anytime, anywhere, and we feel like we are capable of doing the same things that everybody is else is capable of doing. … Hopefully, we get a chance to prove it over the next week or two and we are right back to where we were last year. That would be the ultimate goal and that’s all we really care about.”
Much of the outside doubt around the Bengals centers on the state of the offensive line, which has lost three starters over the past three complete games.
Right tackle La’el Collins is out with a torn ACL, right guard Alex Cappa is still not practicing after suffering a left ankle injury in the regular-season finale and left tackle Jonah Williams exited the wild-card game against Baltimore in the second quarter with a dislocated left knee cap. Williams is no longer using the crutch he had after Sunday’s game but hasn’t practiced and remains “week to week,” according to coach Zac Taylor on Wednesday.
But even potentially being down three starters, the situation is nothing new for Cincinnati. The Bengals lost their starting right tackle late last season and the right guard spot was unsettled all year. Burrow took his share of hits, including nine sacks in the divisional round, but still managed to lead the team to the Super Bowl.
The Bengals also feel better about their backups on the offensive line this year.
“It feels so different for us right now,” Taylor said. “Our team feels different. We feel we’re in a different place on offense, so you learn from all the experiences we had, we’ve always squirreled that away and make sure we learn from it. A lot of that stuff was so long ago. And sometimes you’re facing different teams and different strengths. It’s in the back of your mind, but at the same time this is just a really different year for us.”
Fairfield High School graduate and former Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman, who struggled in the switch to right guard as a rookie last year, stepped back into his natural position Sunday when Williams went down and likely would remain his replacement this week.
The 2021 second-round draft pick lost the starting left guard job in camp but has been repping at both tackle spots and both guard spots this season. Callahan said Carman had been playing the scout team left tackle in recent weeks, and the staff felt like his strength and athleticism made him the best fit, even though D’Ante Smith has been listed as the backup left tackle on the depth chart.
Carman said he learned from his experience last year losing the right guard job, and now it’s a blessing to get an opportunity at left tackle. He said guard made him quicker with his hands and playing different spots helped him develop more awareness to what’s going on around him on both sides of his body.
“It was a lot of learning,” Carman said. “It was a very humbling experience, and I’m excited to be back out there. It tough at first, but I took it as a challenge. I’m ready to keep on building on that learning experience.”
Taylor said the offense doesn’t change with different linemen in the mix because each opponent calls for something different anyway. The Bills, which rank No. 2 in red-zone defense while allowing touchdowns on just 44.9 percent of trips inside the 20, are a unique challenge on their own.
Cincinnati was 2-for-2 in the redzone in the wild card win over Baltimore and at one point in the second half of the season, the Bengals had scored on 17 straight trips inside the 20. They’ve scored touchdowns on 64.9 percent of their redzone trips, ranking fifth in that category.
“It’s kind of a strength on strength,” Taylor said. “... It’s something we pride ourselves on, too, is finding touchdowns down there. It’s probably gonna be the difference in the game, who scores touchdowns in the red zone -- if they can keep us out vs if we can get in. That will be a point of emphasis all we. It usually is, but particularly in playoff games you have to score points.”
Bengals at Bills, 3 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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