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Bengals at Bills preview: On a wing and a prayer

It has been a tale of two seasons in the early going for the Bills and the Bengals. Cincinnati can turn around its 2019 season with a win against the undefeated Bills on their home turf.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Even in early times of the NFL schedule, teams square-off when they are at two very different points in their respective seasons. Such is the case in the Week 3 clash between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills.

Sean McDermott has his team off to a 2-0 start in his second season as Buffalo’s head man and spirits are high. Meanwhile, Zac Taylor is still seeking his first regular-season win as an NFL head coach, as the Bengals are coming off of a rough Week 2 loss.

Something has to give this Sunday at New Era Field.

Is there a more odd, non-divisional relationship between two teams than that of the Bills and Bengals? Both teams have suffered similar Super Bowl heartbreak in their NFL lives, but that’s not where the parallels end.

Their free agency periods seem to be simple player swap-outs from each other’s roster, making the head-to-head clashes more like a high school reunion. These exchanges really started to become apparent a few years ago in the form of Manny Lawson and have continued into more recent offseasons with names like Russell Bodine, Tyler Kroft and John Miller.

In fact, the relationship was taken to the next level last offseason. Tackle Cordy Glenn was traded to Cincinnati, cementing the perceived love-fest between the organizations.

As if that wasn’t enough, the two teams also have a similar rookie profile they covet. Cincinnati flirted with Cody Ford this offseason, only to see him head to western New York. He’s now starting on an offensive line that is playing solid football and is a big key to Buffalo’s 2-0 start.

Yet, all of these recent exchanges have worked out in two different ways for the respective clubs.

The Bengals’ offensive line is a mess, even though they have invested consecutive first-round picks the past two years, two more 2019 free agent contracts on starters (Miller and Bobby Hart) and swung the aforementioned Glenn trade a year ago. Unfortunately, Glenn is suffering from a concussion, 2019 rookie Jonah Williams injured his shoulder this spring and the unit is still reeling from Clint Boling’s unexpected offseason retirement.

Of course, the other aspect that is currently shaping these franchises is the direction they’ve chosen to go at the quarterback position. Buffalo, who has been searching for a franchise guy since Jim Kelly left, may have found one in 2018 first-round pick, Josh Allen.

Allen has gotten off to a solid start through the first two games of 2019. Though he has just two touchdown passes to match his two interceptions, his size, surprising mobility and arm strength provide a formidable matchup for any defense.

That’s particularly the case for a Bengals’ defense that allowed 571 yards to the 49ers on their home field last week. If the regression from Week 1 continues again this Sunday, Allen could have a field day against Lou Anarumo’s unit, who looked completely baffled last week.

On the other sideline, Cincinnati employs veteran mainstay, Andy Dalton. The team has remained committed to “The Red Rifle”, be it through a coaching change and/or the availability of young signal-callers in recent draft classes.

This plan has paid off, to certain extents, in 2019. Dalton is currently second in the league, in terms of passing yards, with 729 through two games.

Taylor is concocting schemes that play to Dalton’s strengths as a quarterback—namely in timing routes, as well as pass attempts in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Dalton has been pretty comfortable, despite throwing behind a patchwork line and not having his favorite target available in A.J. Green.

Still, like many aspects of the team, questions about Dalton’s ability to get this team back to the playoffs surfaced after last week’s demolition at the hands of the 49ers. There were notable dry spells in the offense’s production, including an egregious interception thrown by No. 14 as the team was attempting to keep the game close in the second quarter.

Even so, the blame for the somewhat-predictable 0-2 start by the Bengals needs to be passed around the entire locker room. As mentioned, the defense took a massive step backward last week, while Cincinnati’s front office doesn’t have an effective “Plan B” for the injuries and ineffectiveness along the offensive line.

As it turns out, despite the quarterback chatter and defensive issues, the running game is probably the biggest key of the week. Buffalo is currently ranked ninth in the category, despite cutting ties with LeSean McCoy this offseason.

Rookie running back Devin Singletary has provided a nice spark for Buffalo in their two wins, but is out this week. It’s a big relief for Cincinnati’s defense, as the middle tier of their defense proved unable to move well laterally to stop electric backs as they bounced plays to the outside.

Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest and most unpleasant surprise of the Bengals this year is their inability to run the football. Taylor preached the importance of it since his hiring—most notably in the need to sell play-action passes.

The Bengals are dead-last in the league at running the football at a miserable 29.5 yards-per-game average. It’s quite shocking, given that the team employs 2018 AFC rushing champ, Joe Mixon, as well as the emphasis on making it work. Even with a seemingly-worse offensive line at the end of last year, the Bengals were able to get three 100-yard rushing performances from Mixon in the final four contests.

Billy Price likely re-enters the Bengals’ lineup, as rookie guard Michael Jordan might be sitting with a knee injury. The hope is that the 2018 first-round pick will get the running game back on track with him back inside of the line, but that seems like a far cry from a cure-all.

What remains to be seen is just how viable this Bills team is going forward. They haven’t left the New York/New Jersey areas yet and have two wins against talent-deficient teams in the Jets and Giants, respectively. Buffalo seemingly faces another with Cincinnati’s entrance to town, as evidenced by being six-point favorites this week.

The early part of this season is about baby steps for the Bengals, as they attempt to cling to positives to build upon for later days in the Taylor era. We’ll probably see some of those this week, but will also witness those trademark mistakes that are often on display from a team in transition.

If this were a contest later in the year and not one where the Bengals travel for the second time in three weeks, I’d be inclined to peg them for the upset. Unfortunately, Taylor and his team are still attempting to find their identity, so Cincinnati may be looking at the dreaded 0-3 start.

Bengals 21, Bills 24

AC — Will work for wings.