Inevitably, fans trudge through a schedule in the NFL offseason and take a guess at the wins/losses that may be coming. In the process, there are teams who create uneasiness. Most of the time, the uneasiness stems from an opposition looking imposing because of the previous years (or more) standings. Other times, it's merely a historical matchup problem that ignites the eye rolls.
For Bengals fans, a team that might illicit these feelings is the Buffalo Bills. The history of the two franchises goes back some time--even to the days of the AFL/NFL merger. Buffalo's football franchise is eight years older than the Bengals, but has a more decorated history than Cincinnati. None more evident than their nine-year reign as an AFC powerhouse from 1988-1996. In the span, the team went to the playoffs seven times, including four Super Bowl appearances.
But, if there is a fan base that understands the plight of Who Dey Nation, it's the Bills mafia. After the Hall of Fame triplets of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed retired, the team has undergone a 15-year postseason drought (2000-2014). Sound familiar? It should--the Bengals experienced a similar 14-year drought of their own from 1991-2004.
Unfortunately, the playoffs aren't the only common ground of heartbreak between the respective franchises, either--it's in the way they lose. The 1999 playoffs brought Bills faithful the "Music City Miracle", while the 2005 Wild Card cemented Kimo Von Oelhoffen in Bengals' lore as the ultimate villain. Losing to Joe Montana twice in a decade in the Super Bowl? No problem--the Bills lose four straight Super Bowls to up the heartbreak ante.
It's actually been the head-to-head contests between the two clubs that have been the oddities. When Marvin Lewis took over the head coaching gig for Cincinnati in 2003, the Bills were inauspiciously on their schedule. The Bengals were experiencing a renaissance after linebacker Takeo Spikes eschewed the opportunity to stay with the team that drafted him. He went to the Bills and even though they finished with just six wins in 2003, he and his team got the better of the Bengals.
Two years later when Cincinnati clinched its first division title, they decided to rest most of their starters for the playoffs. In Week 16, the Bills garnered their fifth and final win of 2005 against the Bengals, which helped in the process of Cincinnati drawing the Pittsburgh Steelers for that fateful Wild Card game.
This week isn't about any of the history we've outlined, though. For Buffalo and Cincinnati, it's here and now.
The Bills have taken on the Jekyll and Hyde persona in 2015. To stifle the 15-year playoff absence, the powers-that-be brought in the Parade of Pompous known only as Rex Ryan. While his credentials have fizzled of late, Ryan did a lot of backing up his talk in 2009 and 2010 with two AFC Championship appearances. But, like his Jets teams from 2011-2014, the Bills seem to play solid football one week and Pop Warner-like pigskin the next.
Consider this: the best quarterback Ryan has had in his tenure as a head coach is Mark Sanchez. While Tyrod Taylor has excited Bills Mafia through five games, he has had a couple of poor games and is now dealing with a knee injury. Even still, Taylor has nine touchdowns against four interceptions this year, along with almost 200 rushing yards and two scores with his legs.
Taylor isn't the only one amongst Buffalo's walking wounded. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin have been dealing with issues and the offseason's big get, LeSean McCoy, has had a hamstring bugging him all season. But, true to Rexian fashion, he's been elusive with the statuses of each player this week, as each has either sat out or practiced fully as the days pass. All but McCoy are questionable, with the Pro Bowl running back listed as probable, as of Friday. As if all of that wasn't enough, Ryan brought in former Cincinnati backup quarterback Josh Johnson this week, likely as a tactic to pick his brain for the wackiness of the formidable Bengals offense.
While the Bills are 3-2 and very much alive for the playoffs through the first third of the season, the Bengals are in the driver's seat in the AFC. Bengals fan or not, you would have to be living in a bomb shelter to not hear about the insane comeback they dealt the reigning NFC Champions last Sunday. It's funny how one victory can shed a multiple-decade long stigma, isn't it? Suddenly, the success-shy kittens are the Conference-hungry Tigers that are emblemed on their uniforms.
If the game against Seattle was a big test for the Bengals, perhaps this week's matchup against the Bills is even bigger. It's not the game giving the Bengals a self-examination, but rather in their response to multiple factors. Playing almost five quarters the week prior in an emotionally-charged and uber-physical win, traveling away from the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium, and attempting to properly deal with the wild success they've come upon early in 2015.
Seattle brought quite the test for the renewed Andy Dalton and his offense, but Buffalo's defense is going to bring the same heat. Even pre-Rex, the Bills have talent everywhere on their defense. Ron Darby and Stephon Gilmore have been some of Pro Football Focus' best graded corners on the season, while their defensive line is littered with Pro Bowlers. While they have a pedestrian-like No. 16 ranking in overall defense and are 20th in quarterback sacks this year, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams all know how to make any quarterback uncomfortable.
Cincinnati's offensive line was one of the best units in the NFL through the first four weeks, but the Seahawks front brought problems. They garnered four sacks, frustrating penalties and multiple pressures to make the seasoned group look like a bunch of inexperienced rookies. It's what was put on film last week that the Bills defense will attempt to exploit this Sunday.
Jeremy Hill, the key to the Bengals' ridiculous run in the wake of injury last year, has struggled in 2015. He has five touchdowns on the year, but is only averaging three yards per carry. It's been the Giovani Bernard show this year--and not in the ways of the receiver. While Dalton has been the catalyst to Cincinnati's 5-0 start, these two backs could be the key to reminding the Bills of who they have been since 2000.
Lewis has cut down many a demon in his 14-plus-year tenure as Bengals head coach and many have been great redemption songs. And, while Lewis has had the last laugh in the head-to-heads against Ryan as of 2013, Lewis still has a 1-3 record against the loquacious Buffalo head coach, including the 2009 Wild Card embarrassment at home.
As we said in the individual matchups we laid out, this game is difficult to predict because of Ryan's mum nature on the injury front. If the Bills are full-go with most of their stars aligned, this is a very tough game for the Bengals. However, if it's E.J. Manuel throwing to Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods, it could be a blowout in favor of Cincinnati.
Let the chess match commence.
Bengals 24, Bills 17
AC -- Let's go eat a gosh darn snack.