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Bills at Bengals Game Preview: Circling the wagons

The Buffalo Bills head to Paul Brown Stadium to face the beleaguered Cincinnati Bengals in a must-win contest for both squads. Who will emerge victorious and save their season?

The Cincinnati Bengals had one of the most tumultuous offseasons in recent memory in the form of player attrition, coaching turnover and the tough task of getting over a crushing playoff loss in January to their bitter rivals. If you think a devastating postseason loss doesn’t cause a hangover, look no further than the lackluster 4-6 start to the season from the Carolina Panthers this year after losing Super Bowl 50.

One other sneaky issue that hid behind those aforementioned hurdles was the schedule in first half of Cincinnati’s season. Many outsiders will find it as an embedded excuse, but four of the first nine games have been against 2015 playoff teams (Steelers, Broncos, Patriots, Redskins) with three of those games being on the road. The game against Washington was technically a home game, but traveling to London makes it far from such.

Still, it’s on the players and the coaching staff for a disappointing start to the 2016 season. Instead of allowing an air of complacency and a “woe-is-me” type of attitude that seems to currently be permeating through the locker room, Marvin Lewis and Co. should have grabbed the team by the collar, relied on its veterans for true leadership and set sail for their sixth consecutive playoff berth.

Lewis has begun to come under fire for the Bengals’ underachievement this year, and rightfully so, as he has spearheaded both the reconstruction of the roster and being charged with leading the troops he has acquired. After so many losses in big games, the question has again been asked if he is truly the coach to lead Cincinnati to the promised land.

Because of that, there are more questions than answers and the Bengals now need to come close to running the table over the next seven games to have a chance at making the playoffs. Because of that, there are two schools of thought in how the rest of the season will play out for Cincinnati.

But, the cynics/realists know just how hard winning almost every game will be, especially with two games remaining against the Ravens and another against the Steelers. The Bengals, especially under Lewis, have a penchant for coming oh-so-close to greatness only to pull the rug out from everyone at the last minute. It’s quite possible the Bengals turn things around and make a valiant effort only to just miss out on the postseason.

Neither Baltimore nor Pittsburgh seem overly-formidable, and the other four games on the schedule outside of those, including the one this week against 4-5 Buffalo Bills, seem winnable. And, the message from Lewis to his team shouldn’t be about what’s ahead, but rather what’s right in front of them.

Part of the reason why this week plays into the Bengals’ hands is because they finally have a home game for the first time in three weeks. The Bills’ losses of of wide receiver Sammy Watkins and center Eric Wood also make life easier for a Cincinnati defense that looks to be a shadow of its former self this year.

On the X’s and O’s side, there are a number of interesting matchups this week. The run game chess match is likely the most interesting of them all. The Bengals currently sport the No. 10 rush offense and the No. 24 run defense, while the Bills rank second at running the football, but 20th in stopping it on defense.

It’s not in that facet which could determine the outcome, though. As it is so often in the NFL, Sunday’s are decided in the trenches. And, given the statistical output of both teams, Buffalo has a distinct advantage there, even with the absence of Wood.

Aside from having a powerful rush offense, Buffalo also leads the league in sacks against the opposition with 30 on the year. With the Bengals sitting at No. 30 in the NFL with 28 sacks given up, this doesn’t bode well for Andy Dalton, who, by the way, is on the injury report this week with a banged-up throwing shoulder, though, he’s been removed from the injury report.

On the flip side, the Bengals’ once-stout defensive line is in a tie for 22nd in sacks, after finishing 10th last season in the category. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has been the most consistent player on the line, but the rest of the group has been hit-or-miss at best.

While the Bengals’ defense has been suspect this year, they did seem to step up the intensity on Monday night versus New York. Aside from a trademark evening from Atkins, linebacker Vontaze Burfict was back to Pro Bowl form, racking up 11 total tackles, nine of them of the solo variety, and a forced fumble against the Giants. However, with team speed and age seeming to catch up with the unit, they need to be on the top of their game against the likes of Buffalo’s impressive offensive athletes comprised of Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Mike Gillislee.

This seems like a good week to simplify things and get back to basics for the Bengals. Ken Zampese has attempted to carry the baton from Hue Jackson and use some of his creative formations, but they have come with mixed results this year. Getting the ball in the hands of stars like A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard early and often should be the game plan this week.

Not only will this game test the fortitude of this battle-tested Bengals roster and potentially keep their postseason hopes alive, but it will also point to the resonance Lewis may still have with his squad. It’s gut-check time and Sunday is providing the litmus test for the rest of 2016.

Will Lewis’ even-keeled approach win the day over Rex Ryan’s outspoken bravado? Can Cincinnati’s veterans bring enough leadership to get a win to turn around their season?

Bills 20, Bengals 21

AC — Bringing the type of irony that would make Mike Brown blush.