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Bills-Bengals bout is effectively Buffalo’s first playoff game

No, Buffalo’s season won’t end if they lose, but the stakes are still quite high

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills have two games remaining on their regular-season schedule, but their postseason begins a week from tonight against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football.

Cincinnati, like Buffalo, is one of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Bengals are 11-4, boast a seven-game winning streak, and are eyeing a meteoric rise from .500 all the way to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture. That spot is currently occupied by Buffalo, themselves winners of six straight for an overall record of 12-3.

It’s entirely conceivable that either one of these teams could end up with home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs. As of this morning, The New York Times playoff simulator gives the Bills a 48% chance of landing the top seed, followed by the 12-3 Kansas City Chiefs at 31%, and the Bengals at 21%.

If the Bills win in Cincinnati, that percentage chance of landing the top seed jumps to 86%. If they lose, it plummets to 15%.

It’s also worth noting that regardless of Buffalo’s Week 18 outcome, or any outcomes from the Chiefs’ final two games, a Bills win over the Bengals will ensure that they will be no worse than the No. 2 seed — meaning that if they’re fortunate enough to play a second playoff game this season, that one would also occur at Highmark Stadium.

Buffalo has fought hard to be in the position they’re currently in after a two-game November losing streak took their record to 6-3. (They received some help they needed along the way, too, including from these very Bengals.) That fight has taken its toll; the team has lost edge rusher Von Miller for the season during that stretch, and several other key contributors have been nursing injuries for multiple weeks — a list that includes quarterback Josh Allen, center Mitch Morse, guards Ryan Bates and Rodger Saffold, defensive tackles Ed Oliver and Jordan Phillips, linebacker Matt Milano, and safety Jordan Poyer.

In addition to the benefit of rest for Buffalo’s ailing stars, the Bills are also 6-0 all-time under head coach Sean McDermott coming off of a bye week. Those are two big reasons to crave a first-round bye. Add in the fact that the Bills are 3-0 in playoff games in Orchard Park, NY under McDermott — and 0-4 in playoff games played elsewhere — you begin to wrap your head around Buffalo’s motivation for securing home-field advantage.

Buffalo clinched its spot in the postseason two weekends ago, and ensured on Saturday with their win over the Chicago Bears that they’d be hosting at least one playoff game this season. None of that will change should they lose in Cincinnati. A game is only truly must-win if a loss ends your season, so that label won’t apply this week. But with so much advantage to gain by winning out, we can pretty safely expect Buffalo to treat their trip to Ohio as if it’s their first playoff game of the year.