A huge matchup is a couple of days away in the state of New York. Emotions are all over the spectrum from fanbases of both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, as both teams attempt to secure their passport to the AFC Championship Game.
To get a pulse on the Buffalo Bills and what has transpired in a chaotic few weeks since the two teams last met, we tapped the knowledge of Matt Byham over at SB Nation’s Buffalo Rumblings.
1.) AC: In the two full games since the unfortunate Damar Hamlin injury (we are all so thankful he is recovering!), have you noticed any new trends — both good and bad — by the Bills as they head to the Divisional round?
MB: I think it’s pretty evident that what happened during Week 17 has affected players and coaches in different ways, and that’s manifested itself on the field to some degree. Against the Patriots, it clearly motivated special teams, while it seemed the defense was playing out of sorts (to my eyes) amid what must have been a highly emotional and tense scene returning to play.
New trends for the Bills might entail a more focused intent to get rookie running back James Cook involved throughout the game, at the expense of snaps for the incumbent Devin Singletary. Cook brings something to the Bills’ run game that’s been lacking in recent years – explosiveness.
There’s perhaps a greater commitment toward giving Allen outlets between the sticks as well, despite what played out against the Dolphins on Super Wild Card Weekend. Players like Dawson Knox and a mixture of Cole Beasley/Khalil Shakir/Isaiah McKenzie have led to more opportunities in space to gain yards after the catch.
Another trend seems to be a rekindled passion for throwing deep passes to Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, and John Brown. Week 18 finally saw Allen and Diggs return to their productive partnership, while John Brown has clearly reassumed his deep-ball prowess in returning to Buffalo. Gabe Davis seems to have found his playoff vibe just in time, which should scare defenses.
2.) AC: Josh Allen is insanely talented, no doubt. However, he is prone to the occasional, critical turnover along with the huge plays he routinely exhibits. Has cleaning this up been particularly emphasized from the Buffalo staff this week—especially with the Bengals’ defense having a penchant for creating timely turnovers? Or, has the approach been still “business as usual”?
MB: I certainly hope it’s been of critical focus for Allen and his coaches. Like Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers (and other current greats) — what happens to a football after it leaves Allen’s grasp is magnified due to his stature in the league.
It appears the national media, by and large, is quick to knock Allen’s play if it isn’t perfect at this point. Perhaps that’s due to what we all witnessed in last season’s playoffs, but it seems unfair. There seem to be countless long-form pieces out right now that simply leave one with the impression that it’s quite possible Josh Allen is simply human.
Forgive me for a few sentences here, but Josh Allen feels like the culmination of the 21 years and 17 starting quarterbacks (and 17 consecutive seasons without playoffs) between Jim Kelly’s last game in the NFL (1996 home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars), and Allen’s arrival in Buffalo in 2018. By that I mean his ascendance feels like a flushing of all the insanity Bills fans endured for two decades straight.
The list of starting QBs between Kelly and Allen? Whoa boy: Todd Collins, Alex Van Pelt, Doug Flutie, Rob Johnson, Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm, EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Kyle Orton, Tyrod Taylor, Matt Cassel, Nathan Peterman. Mind you, I adore Ryan Fitzpatrick and will forever remember Tyrod Taylor as the QB to help break the drought (thanks in large part to the Bengals). But, by and large, that’s a frightening list to digest, even with a mismanaged Doug Flutie.
Forgive the tangent, but all that’s to say that it’s quite possible Bills fans aren’t comfortable with the idea that Josh Allen is suddenly a turnover machine, at least in the sense that it’s costing the franchise wins and less-than-stellar views about all things Bills. In reality, his numbers are nearly identical to last season, though the fumbles have increased.
Against the Miami Dolphins on Super Wild Card Weekend, I was audibly discontent with one critical play by Allen — the fumble that was recovered and returned five yards for a TD. I felt that Allen should have simply turtled and taken the sack to live another series. Too many things wrong were at play: injury and of course a turnover. I felt that was the one play of his that he made the wrong choice. But you know what? Allen’s human.
I don’t know that this week’s prep has entailed anything specific toward cleaning up Allen’s turnovers, simply because I don’t think it’s all his fault beyond his occasional attempt to rise above an offensive deficiency. It’s also exceedingly difficult to work on that sort of issue when there are so few days to prep for what the Bengals’ tape has shown.
I do hope they have found a way to work on ball security because it was something clearly bothering Allen in postgame and a trend that could cost them a game in the playoffs. Knowing the type of person Allen is, those plays have eaten him up. Fortunately, Allen’s capable of putting the bad to bed so he can orchestrate a midnight blockbuster.
3.) AC: If you had to choose a name on Buffalo’s offense (skill position) to step up not named Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and/or Dawson Knox in this one (as we know deep playoff games can often be decided by ancillary players), who would you choose?
MB: That’s easy: wide receiver Gabe Davis, who plays as the team’s No. 2 wideout. To many in the fanbase, Davis has had a disappointing season – all while posting career bests in every metric aside from the number of games played.
The issue many have with Davis is his penchant for drops. Perhaps none were bigger than the toss Allen launched 70 yards to him at game’s end against the New York Jets. The ball hit him in the numbers, but he dropped it. Had he made the catch, it’s very likely he would have either scored or given the Bills a chance to kick the game-winning field goal.
I believe the complaints of Davis are a bit extreme, but I also think he’s better suited to a WR3 role on an elite offense. His increased drops can simply be chalked up to his increased role in the offense.
But inside Davis is Playoff Gabe – a person whose deadly ability to carve up defenses in the playoffs makes teams rethink the idea of trying to eliminate Stefon Diggs. Davis has played lights out during the playoffs, dating back to last season’s loss against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last weekend, he caught six passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. He represents a target with size advantage over almost every Bengals corner, and his continued success with exceedingly long touchdown catches is perhaps rivaled only by DeSean Jackson.
4.) AC: When looking at the Bills’ defense, there are talented names everywhere, but opposing offenses have had their opportunities for yards and points. Is the Bills’ best plan of attack attempting to take out the intermediate throws to players like Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and/or Hayden Hurst, or play two deep safeties to try and eliminate the possible big play from Ja’Marr Chase?
MB: I suspect they’ll continue with the two-deep safety look and have confidence in cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Kaiir Elam to win their battles. The Bills’ bread and butter is its Buffalo Nickel package, utilizing Taron Johnson as the nickel corner and two deep safeties in Jordan Poyer (and currently) Dean Marlowe.
Those opportunities for yards certainly have come at the expense of their bend-but-don’t-break approach, which tightens up inside either team’s red zone. There were times during the season when the secondary was so depleted by injuries that it seemed likely they might change coverages up and try to force teams into attacking that middle portion of the field – but instead, they stuck with what’s worked.
Like the Bengals, the Bills field a pair of very talented and athletic linebackers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. There isn’t a role they shy away from on defense, whether it’s in run support, pass defense, or even rushing the quarterback. Both have elite speed to cover very large portions of the field in a hurry, and their play has allowed defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier to continue marching to the beat of his preferred drum.
To contain the middle of the field within that two-deep safety look, you’ll likely see Edmunds coming out of nowhere to stop a reception or rush between the sticks from gaining a first – or jumping back in coverage to break up an intended pass. Milano plays with such intensity and precision that he’s one of the defense’s biggest keys to success. If there’s something Milano can’t do well, it appears defenses haven’t figured it out. He’s a true x-factor on defense.
5.) AC: At the beginning of this week, the line by DraftKing Sportsbook has hovered between -4/-5 for the Bills. Snow, do-or-die game and key missing players make this a tough one to predict. Obviously, a lot of “what ifs” exist from a few weeks ago, but how do you see this one going and what do you think of the line?
MB: Snow shouldn’t be too much of an issue. The worst of it’s expected to happen around 1 p.m. EST. That worst will only be an inch or two – aka a dusting as we in Western New York are apt to say. Do-or-die favors both teams, to be honest, so much so that I believe the next-man-up mentality could serve the Bengals well on the offensive line.
I don’t want to venture too far into what happened (or didn’t) in Week 17, because I don’t know that we were ever going to get a truly equitable solution in the timeframe given and at that point in the season. I can see why Bengals fans are upset their team wasn’t able to finish the regular-season game vs. the Bills to qualify for the two seed, while the Bills were given consolations for being unable to adequately chase the Chiefs and that one seed.
I get it all. But it’s all out of our hands and as fans, we shouldn’t have to bear the burden cast by the league.
I’m not entirely sure how I see this game unfolding and I’m surprised the line isn’t closer. My guess is that the points reflect Cincinnati’s injury situation. I don’t view the Bengals playing in Orchard Park as a huge swing in the Bills’ favor, despite Buffalo’s success at home. The weather and environment are similar, and the Bengals have proven capable road warriors in the playoffs.
Both teams struggled in the wild card round against divisional foes, but that’s perhaps to be expected given the familiarity of the opponent. This game will be unique, with so little known about each directly, and what’s sure to be an emotional and potentially chippy experience for both teams in the early going.
Whichever team wins will have been lucky to do so. I’m calling a close victory, with a 50/50 chance for both teams. Minimizing turnovers will be key is the Bills hope to win, while transcendent play within the trenches may hold the keys to victory for the Bengals.
Our sincerest gratitude to Matt Byham and Buffalo Rumblings. Be sure to catch the other side of this conversation over on their site!