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Bills at Bengals Game Preview: Friendly Foe Scenarios

Sunday night will have a lot of say in the direction of two teams’ seasons and the AFC playoff picture.

Just about 10 months ago to the day, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills took the field at Paycor Stadium on a Monday night in Cincinnati to set up an AFC Conference clash with huge playoff implications.

Cincinnati was surging on a seven-game winning streak to propel them toward the top of their division, while the Bills had their sights set on a Super Bowl run following a heartbreaking postseason performance the prior year.

Instead, chaos, confusion, terror, and sadness engulfed that game that only lasted about 1.5 quarters. Thankfully, Buffalo defensive back Damar Hamlin has made a full recovery since those scary minutes that seemed to have lasted an eternity and is back playing for the Bills this year.

A few short weeks later, Cincinnati traversed to snowy Buffalo for a postseason rematch after they had bested the Baltimore Ravens in consecutive weeks. Hamlin was in attendance for this one in the team suite, bringing a ray of sunshine to an otherwise gloomy, cold, and snow-laden day.

In surprising fashion, the Bengals, complete with three backup offensive linemen, had their way with the Bills on their home field. Josh Allen was harassed by the Cincinnati defense all afternoon, while Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon tore the Buffalo defense up for what would become a 17-point win for the visitors.

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Those are the most recent and likely more emotional historical moments between these franchises, but their intertwined pasts don’t stop there. The 1970s brought us everything from 1973’s defensively-dominated 16-13 Bengals win to bring both teams at 5-4 to 1975’s iconic Monday Night shootout with Ken Anderson throwing for 447 yards and O.J. Simpson rushing for 197 in another Cincinnati win, 33-24.

The following decade brought us quite a few big games as well, pitting Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly against the great Boomer Esiason. Cincinnati’s path to Super Bowl XXIII came via two wins against Buffalo—one in the regular season and in the AFC Championship.

During that postseason run, both the Seattle Seahawks (Divisional Round) and the Bills were accused of feigning injuries as a last-ditch effort to slow down the Bengals’ lethally innovative “no-huddle offense.” Yet, oddly enough, Marv Levy and Kelly adopted this style of play en route to four straight Super Bowl appearances.

Of course, more recently, a near-friendship developed between the two franchises, thanks to a miraculous play by Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd in what was otherwise a lost 2017 season.

Not only did that play turn around Boyd’s career (see our interview video with him below at about the 2:45 mark), but it sent Buffalo to the postseason for the first time in 17 years. It’s still talked about to this day and is one of the major links between the two squads.

And, with that, we are pretty much caught up on the recent history between the two teams. Sunday night pits two teams jockeying for playoff positioning with two of the league’s best quarterbacks against each other.

Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow started off extremely quiet, throwing just two touchdowns against two interceptions through the first five games. He’s since thrown for eight scores against two interceptions in the last three games, proving that he’s finally getting past the calf injury that greatly limited him and the rest of the offense.

Josh Allen has largely been Superman, throwing for a touchdown in each of his eight contests, with six of them being comprised of multiple touchdown tosses. However, his kryptonite of playing a little too loose with the football has shown up as well, throwing for interceptions in six of the eight games played, one each in the last four, and two lost fumbles this year.

Part of the reason for Allen needing to don that iconic “S” on his chest is the amount of injuries the Bills have had to overcome this year. And, while the defense has been hit particularly hard with the infirmary bug, the offense hasn’t been immune to it either.

On his own side of the ball, Allen has had stretches of being without the services of running backs Nyheim Hines and Damien Harris, tight ends Dawson Knox and Zach Davidson, and a couple of others.

The defense has been hit even harder with two of their top three cornerbacks landing on I.R. (Kaiir Elam and Tre’Davious White), along with the outstanding defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, as well as health issues with linebackers Matt Milano, A.J. Klein and Baylon Spector.

While Buffalo will want to get things going on the ground, especially with No. 17 getting his own yards, it will likely be the Stefon Diggs show. After an offseason filled with questions about the relationship between him and his quarterback, Diggs is leading the NFL in receptions (64), fourth in yards (748), along with six touchdown grabs.

Khalil Shakir and Gabe Davis round out the group nicely, but it’s Knox’s tight end replacement that could be the “X Factor” for Buffalo’s offense. First round pick Dalton Kincaid had a nice evening against the Buccaneers a week and a half ago and is a piece that can be moved around quite a bit.

Ja’Marr Chase has been at the statistical heels of Diggs, placing seventh in receiving yards (656) and tied for fourth in receptions (60, with A.J. Brown). In those first handful of up-and-down weeks for the Bengals, Chase was the most consistent threat, but that has begun to diversify over the weeks wherein the Bengals have won three in a row and four out of the last five.

Joe Mixon remains a solid run game option, while Tee Higgins rounded into form last week. Andrei Iosivas has become a reliable red zone weapon with two touchdowns in the past two games, and both Tyler Boyd and Trenton Irwin are making plays when called upon.

Tight end remains an issue for the Bengals’ offense, and they didn’t make a trade deadline move to bolster the group. However, the intriguing Tanner Hudson was just called up, so we’ll see where he fits in.

We’ve outlined the issues plaguing the Bills’ defense—namely injuries—and while the Bengals’ defense has made their share of huge plays this year, they are not a perfect unit. Because of early offensive deficiencies and the path in “finding their way,” Cincinnati’s defense is in the top-10 of most rushing yards allowed, with teams garnering 5.0 yards per carry.

They’re 11th in the least amount of passing yards allowed, though, pointing to a relative strength. But, gone appear the days of Lou Anarumo’s group stifling offenses from gaining ground and forcing punts with regularity. This is a group that will allow some plays but has also proven to be opportunistic with creating turnovers and sacking the quarterback. They are second in the NFL in interceptions with 10 (a tie with two teams at No. 1) and are middle of the pack in quarterback sacks.

Trey Hendrickson is among the best in the NFL in pressures, pressure rate, and pass-rush win rates, but he is dealing with an ankle issue. It didn’t stop him from having an impact last week, but we’ll see how that carries over this week.

We can talk all we want about stats, rates, and the like, but this game comes down to the unknowns: emotions, intangibles, and the effects of accrued injuries coming into this one. Emotions have to be running wild in the Buffalo locker room as they return to the site of the scary Hamlin injury (he’ll be there, too) 10 months later.

You can also bet your bottom dollar that they are still salty with the way their 2022 season ended, and that will be fuel for the primetime matchup.

It’s unclear just how big of an impact Kincaid and Hudson will have on this game. Kincaid’s top-pick pedigree and prior game’s performance point to him having a bigger stamp on this one, but we’ll see.

And, speaking of the Bills’ last game, they’ve had that coveted “mini-bye” coming off of a Thursday night contest. We saw what wonders a full bye did for the Bengals last week against San Francisco, so maybe a few extra days off will similarly be just what the doctor ordered for Buffalo.

Josh Allen’s shoulder and Joe Burrow’s calf...are the issues totally behind both of them? Is Cincinnati’s offense truly back, or will it be more roller coaster rides from week to week?

While the Bills will be playing a much more inspired brand of football than what we saw in the late January snow, their injuries may be too much to overcome against what plays to the Bengals’ strengths. Their depleted linebacker and cornerback groups may have a tough time keeping up with Cincinnati’s immensely talented wideouts, should their offense show consistency.

Bengals 26, Bills 22