Here come the Buffalo Bills! Two small market teams with old-guard owners will get together this weekend in Cincinnati and play a friendly game of football where one team is likely to improve on its dismal record while the other feels that much worse about itself. Bills fans are excited about the chance of winning in back-to-back weeks, while Bengals fans eye this game as their team's best chance at ending the current six-game losing streak. It could very well turn out to be an exciting game that comes down to the end between two quarterbacks who are close friends and former teammates. There are some quality story lines in the match-up this week, but the game is blacked out and there are so few of us who still care anyway. A game played in darkness - what a shame.
Rant About Television Blackouts (feel free to skip down)
Not that I blame anyone for not wanting to fork over $65 and up for a ticket to see two non-playoff caliber teams. Instead, I blame the blackout rules and the men who profit from them. Rather than preventing millions to watch because thousands won't attend, why don't teams partner with cable networks and offer the game as a pay-per-view program? If you have the NFL ticket, then you are paying for just that, but even that prevents the buyer from watching in-market blacked out games. Of course, I don't know the business ins-and-outs of the contract-law universe and I am sure that my ignorance prevents me from understanding why that wouldn't work, but going to an NFL game is overrated when you can watch it at home and get good replays with the company you prefer. I'd rather watch my team on television as they play in an empty stadium rather than not watch them at all. In fact, we can scale the stadiums down to nothing and watch the Bills and Bengals play a regular-season game at Georgetown, Kentucky and pay to watch it on television instead of cramming into a huge, overpriced place for more than a full-day's work. If that could happen, owners couldn't screw cities with stadium taxes and threats to move elsewhere - move anywhere you want, just give me the option of seeing the games on television. After all, if everyone in Cincinnati is paying taxes on the team's stadium, they should be able to see home games on TV no matter what. Gimmie a break.
On to the game.
Bills offense vs. Bengals defense
We know Ryan Fitzpatrick; he's a rascally gunslinger with accuracy and arm-strength issues. He can be fun to watch when he's found an offensive rhythm and heartbreaking when he can't hit his target at all. He's not a pure passer but he's quick and gritty for a quarterback - a very poor man's Steve Young. I've always rooted for him because, despite his Ivy League history, he lacks that pretty-boy sheen that the QB fraternity embraces. It seemed to me that when the Bengals (finally) adjusted their offense toward his skill-set, they found out that they were a good ball-control and power-run team. That philosophical shift worked well from about Week 9, 2008 to Week 13, 2009 where it amassed a 13-6-1 record during that stretch. What it also showed was that Carson Palmer was more effective in the Fitzpatrick-mold of the Bengals offense rather than the Palmer-mold. Interesting.
Fitzpatrick's current offense is sort of a free-wheeling one where Fitzy has license to take shots down-field or use his legs to pick up first downs. The group is loaded with some explosive talent and has found a bit of a stride lately. There are two Buffalo players that I have noticed for the first time and one of them is receiver Steve Johnson. I don't know much about his past, but this year Johnson has found stardom with Fitzpatrick. He seems reliable around the sidelines, is fast and has some flashy open-field moves. His success has led to Lee Evans seeing less double teams and has also benefited the numbers of third-receiver Roscoe Parrish. The Bengals secondary will have to make Johnson their top-priority while staying mindful of Parrish on short crossing routes and bubble screens. As for Evans, I would be fine with keeping Johnathan Joseph on him in single coverage and live with the consequences.
The Bills also employ a nice running-back tandem of Fred Jackson and rookie C.J. Spiller. Jackson is not as fast as Spiller but is good at picking up at least some yards on every carry. He has nice cutback runs and reminds me a little of Chicago's Matt Forte. Buffalo doesn't run nearly as much as their opponents do, but that stat is likely skewed from a 1-8 team throwing more often on comeback attempts - Bengal fans know how that feels. Fitzpatrick himself racks up a good deal of rushing yards on his scrambles, and on third down, that is something the Bengals must be mindful of. Overall, I would think Zimmer might concern himself more with stopping the pass than worrying about the run, but if these guys start ripping off big chunks of yardage and Spiller busts loose for a big one, an adjustment should be made. Hopefully the linebackers keep up their tough play from last week and continue to look active and aggressive. Good play from that group could obscure the difficulties in other parts of the defense.
This Bills team is capable of putting up yards, but they can also be derailed quickly if Fitzpatrick's wild improvisation can be contained. The Bengals should have a handle of what their old backup can do; they should bait him and spring the trap once they know he can't resist.
Bengals offense vs. Bills defense
The other guy I have noticed this season in Buffalo is defensive tackle Kyle Williams. This is a hard-working individual who isn't the tallest or fattest in the league, but gets a good push into the pocket on passes and he plays his running lanes very well by staying low. The good news for Cincinnati is that Williams missed practice time this week with a bothered hamstring and may not suit up on Sunday. Who becomes the next priority on that defensive line is hard to say - no one really grabs the eye, so this might be a team that the Bengals can pound with Benson up the middle.
Another good player for the Bills is Paul Posluszny who has put together a very nice four seasons and arguably has the squarest head in the league. In the limited Bills action I've seen this year, No. 51 is always on the screen making something happen. You will probably notice him this week too - oh, that's right, you won't. My bad.
And in their secondary, the Bills feature the hard-hitting Donte Whitner and good cover man, Leodis McKelvin. They also have the promising safety, Jairus Byrd, who had nine interceptions last year but has zero so far in 2010 - funny how that works. Collectively, this group is good enough make the Bills the seventh-ranked pass defense and should be hungry for an errant throw by Palmer, or a pass allowed into coverage by Terrell Owens.
If Buffalo can at least slow the run and get a few picks, they should win the game. For the Bengals to reverse that outcome they should, A.) get both running backs involved with not only runs but also screen plays and check-offs, B.) use their possession-receiving rookies, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley on third downs, and C.) not force the ball to their superstars if any part of the play breaks down.
Both TO and Chad Ochocinco make big plays - it's what has made their careers great - but when they're targeted and they can't pull it in, it always seems somewhat disastrous. I don't want to sound like I am not appreciative of the amazing things they do for their team, but when they are targeted and can't convert, the play rarely goes for a harmless incompletion that sets up second or third down. Instead the ball is either intercepted, missed for a huge play or leads to a fourth down. They are hall-of-fame caliber players, but despite their heavy statistical production, they have been unreliable and it's killing the team. That's why instead of going their way in crucial moments, I think Palmer should look for the supporting cast more. Once TO, Chad and Palmer have proven they can consistently be on the same page, then you look for the great ones to make the important plays. Otherwise, they're wasting downs in crunch-time.
I know what some of you are saying. TO and Chad have combined for tons of yards and touchdowns, how can I blame them? Because sometimes doing it often is less important than doing it when it counts the most.
I included this segment this week because the Bengals will unveil a kicker I have never seen before. If they find themselves in a situation like 4th & 4 at the Bills 32 yard line, they may just want to go for it rather than try out this new, mysterious leg. The kick-coverage will also be worth monitoring. Chances are, this game will be a low-scoring one and that field position will matter perhaps a little more than usual. If Aaron Pettrey kicks short kickoffs or starts missing field goals, I say we let Chad give it a go.
Many of us will see the action of the game after the fact. It will be surreal watching a Bengals game for the first time and already knowing the outcome. If the Bengals lose this one, the entire organization may just emotionally check out and let the season rot - if that hasn't happened already. A win, however, could propel the men in stripes to an unfathomable stretch of seven wins in a row, a wild-card birth and an eventual Super Bowl championship! And it all starts this weekend! Here come the Buffalo Bills!
Bengals 14, Bills 9
Mojokong - covering my wagons.