For a team that is a 5 ½ point underdog, the Cincinnati Bengals are almost strutting into Highmark Stadium for Sunday’s Divisional playoff game against the Bills. To say they’re confident is an understatement.
Certainly the fact they’re defending AFC Champions and almost a Super Bowl winner is part of it, and so is the fact they’ve won their last 9 games.
Part of this is perception.
The Bengals were flying in the 1st quarter of the Monday Night game almost 3 weeks ago now that was shockingly halted and then cancelled due to Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffering cardiac arrest after tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. His heart stopped on the field, but the medical response and recovery have been a national feel good story. A coming together story that no doubt will continue before the game Sunday as Bills fans and Bengals fans exchange greetings.
That will disappear once the game is underway, but the bond between Bengals and Bills fans is unique in the NFL. Hamlin is doing great, and Higgins plans to meet with him before the game if it can be arranged. Higgins was shaken by the reaction of some over zealous fans who blamed him for the Hamlin injury on social media, but it was a play that happens several times a game with no problem.
Back to the Bengals confidence.
In the Monday Night game, the Bengals took the opening kickoff and marched to a quick TD. The Bills then answered with a drive that stalled for a field goal, and the Bengals were driving again near midfield when the Hamlin collapse stopped the game.
Some Cincinnati media people say the Bengals, among themselves, feel they learned a lot about the Bills in that brief meeting. Yep, leading 7-3 with less than a quarter played and they’ve learned something?
Ridiculous if true.
The Bills, who’ve won 8 straight games, trailed by 6 or more points in the second quarter of 5 games this season.
They won all 5.
Maybe a bigger reason for this confidence; running back Joe Mixon said more than once this week that the AFC path to the Super Bowl goes through the Bengals, who are the ‘big dog’ of the AFC. The Bills and Chiefs might beg to differ. But why not be confident? The Bengals have Joe Burrow.
They seem to forget that while the Bills struggled in their Wild Card game against the injury-riddled Dolphins, the Bengals were a fumbled goal line dive away from losing to the Jackson-less Ravens.
And then there’s Josh Allen, and the growing perception that he’s becoming a turnover machine. Many national media types, and even some Bills fans, are buying into that narrative after the 3 turnover game against Miami. Yet even with the turnovers, including a sack/fumble that turned into a TD, the Bills gained over 420 yards and scored 34 points.
Burrow is considered by some to be Allen’s equal or better, but I’m not buying it. Patrick Mahomes is hard to argue against so far, but the rap on Allen is more perception than reality in my view.
Burrow and Allen have both thrown 35 touchdowns. Burrow has 12 int’s while Allen has 14. Burrow has lost 3 fumbles and Allen 5. That’s a difference of four turnovers in 17 games, and even at that, the Bills have a plus point differential of 203 to the Bengals 120, although the Bengals did play a tougher schedule.
Allen is by far the better runner, averaging 6.1 yards per carry for 762 yards and 7 touchdowns, to Burrow’s 3.4 average and 267 yards and 5 TD’s.
The 2 have very different styles. Burrow is much more protective of the football and will succumb to a sack much more quickly than Allen, who loves to extend plays if he can. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s who he is. Burrow also gets the ball out much more quickly, and despite having some great receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Higgins and Tyler Boyd, he doesn’t try to hit them deep nearly as much as Allen does. But. They all can run after the catch, so the Bills tackling must be solid.
Going into the playoffs, we all thought the Bills offensive line was better than the Bengals’ O-line, even when they were healthy. Now the Bengals have 3 starting linemen including both tackles, who are questionable. However, the Bills allowed Allen to get sacked 7 times against the Dolphins, who were short handed.
That unit will have to be better, and getting Devin Singletary and James Cook some running room is also a must, as the Bills run game is simply better than Cincy’s, even taking Allen out of the equation.
Defensively, the Bills are as healthy as they’ve been all year, although they obviously miss Von Miller right now most of all. Games like this were why the Bills gave him a 6-year, $120m contract. But Miller is still helping the Bills down linemen, and Greg Rousseau outside and Ed Oliver inside need to have disruptive games. I’m also hoping rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam will get the start even should Dane Jackson be able to play. Elam has great ball skills and can be a difference maker.
With linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds ability to cover receivers as well as run support, the Bills should be in good shape there.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Bills attack the Bengals D, which is not without talent. Allen will have Isaiah McKenzie available along with Cole Beasley and rookie Khalil Shakir in the slot, but how many will get targeted? Will Allen use his running backs a bit more in the passing game, including Nyheim Hines? Let’s see Hines get the ball in some open space.
Bills OC Ken Dorsey must focus on the task at hand even though he’s a contender for the HC job at Carolina, but I don’t see that as an issue. He won’t try to water down Allen’s game, nor should he. Allen must be himself, and that’s usually more than good enough.
He’s not perfect, but who is? Give me Allen all day long.
Bills win 33-24.
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