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Five Cincinnati Bengals to watch vs. the Buffalo Bills

Okay, there might be more than five players to watch in such a big game

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals face off this week in the only game of the week featuring two teams with a winning record. In fact, this matchup boasts the most combined victories in any Monday Night Football contest ever, as the 23 combined wins ties a 1997 matchup between the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers for the honor.

That game featured two of the four eventual conference championship game participants, with the 49ers beating the Broncos, 34-17. San Francisco went on to lose the NFC Championship Game. Denver went on to beat the Green Bay Packers to claim its first Super Bowl title.

This week’s contest features two of the AFC’s best, as at least one of these two squads has appeared in each of the last two AFC Championship Games. The Bills lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2020 NFL Playoffs, while the Bengals defeated those same Chiefs last year on their way to losing the Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams. Both teams boast a high-powered offense. Both teams have an excellent defense. In short, this is going to be a great game with a playoff atmosphere.

Which players are we watching for Cincinnati this week? Typically, we’d narrow it down to just five, but given the sheer amount of talent on the Bengals’ roster, we’re going to bend the rules a little bit. Here are the more-than-five players we’re going to be watching for Cincinnati this week.

QB Joe Burrow

If you blitz him, he’ll kill you. If you give him time, he’ll kill you slowly. So how, exactly, does a defense approach this generation’s “Joe Cool?” And no, I’m not comparing the man to Joe Montana, but I have heard the nickname applied at various times over the last two seasons. Burrow is an elite player at the premier position in the game, and he seems primed to be one of the three heads in the Mahomes-Allen-Burrow AFC quarterback triumvirate that’s akin to the Brady-Manning-Roethlisberger trio of the early aughts. Beating the Bengals and Burrow means that you have to pressure him with your front four, something that Buffalo does well and is accustomed to doing — with or without Von Miller. Defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier doesn’t blitz often, trusting his defensive linemen to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bengals had to place starting right tackle La’el Collins on injured reserve ahead of this one, so they’ll start their first new offensive line combination of the season. That means that it should be Greg Rousseau, Buffalo’s top edge rusher, facing off against a new man. They’ll need to disrupt Burrow’s rhythm with stunts and games up front, hitting him early and often if they want to win. Burrow has been sacked 39 times this year, but in the Bengals’ seven-game win streak, he hasn’t taken more than two in a game. One-third of those sacks came in the first two weeks of the season, too. This is as complete an offense as Buffalo has faced this year, and Burrow is as good a quarterback as they’ve seen since Week 6 in Kansas City. They’ll need to fluster Mr. Cool in order to move one step closer to the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

RB Joe Mixon

Part of flustering Burrow is going to be limiting the run game. Mixon is an excellent running back, equally adept at catching passes out of the backfield as he is plowing through small holes for big gains on the ground. Cincinnati’s run game has been weak — they rank just 26th in total rushing yards and 28th in yards per attempt. They’ve managed 100 rushing yards as a team in just six games so far this year. In contrast, Buffalo has totaled 100 or more yards rushing in every game this season. Limiting Mixon will help the Bills’ defense, in that a one-dimensional team is easier to defend. Limiting Mixon won’t change what Cincinnati does much, however — Mixon has been limited multiple times so far on the year. If Mixon has room to run, though, it will open up the play-action game for Burrow and company, which would spell big trouble for Buffalo’s defense.

The pass-catchers

With all due respect to the Miami Dolphins and their excellent wideouts, this pass-catching group is basically the ideal set of skill players to complement a quarterback. You want a speed burner who can exploit you vertically and horizontally? Enter Ja’Marr Chase, the shifty, speedy wideout who leads the Bengals in targets (121), receptions (79), and touchdowns (eight). You want a big-bodied deep threat whose speed is underrated? How about Tee Higgins, the 6’4” man-child who leads the Bengals in receiving yards (1,022) and yards per catch (14.0). He’s second in targets (102), catches (73), and touchdowns (seven). Need a conversion on third-and-medium? How about targeting sure-handed slot man Tyler Boyd, a folk hero in Buffalo for sending the 2017 vintage to the playoffs with his fourth-and-impossible touchdown reception to beat the Baltimore Ravens in the season’s final game. Boyd has a respectable 53/711/5 line on 75 targets this year. Oh, and if that isn’t enough, tight end Hayden Hurst is expected to return after missing the last three games with a calf injury. Sure, Buffalo has been great against tight ends this year, but Hurst is just another talented option in a passing game filled with them. He’s caught 48 passes for an even 400 yards and two touchdowns this year. While we can talk about how Kaiir Elam was a draft choice to combat Tyreek Hill as much as we want, it’s just as likely that he was drafted to help against a rising Cincinnati team, too. Which corner guards which player in man? Taron Johnson will have Boyd, but does Buffalo go with Tre’Davious White on Chase, with Elam on Higgins? Will Dane Jackson continue to play meaningful snaps? I think I’d go with White on Higgins and Elam on Chase, but the chess match and the coverage options will play a huge role in the outcome of this one.

DE Trey Hendrickson

Cincy’s top edge rusher has a broken wrist, but in an old-school football tough-guy twist, he’s playing with a club on his arm to protect it rather than sitting out and waiting for it to heal fully. Hendrickson missed just one game, the Bengals’ Week 15 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With Hendrickson expected to play again, a much-maligned Buffalo offensive line will need to be at its best this week. Hendrickson has six sacks, and he has nearly as many quarterback hits (22) as he does total tackles (30). He’s a stud, and Buffalo will need to account for him on every play, whether that means using tight end Dawson Knox to chip, adding a sixth offensive lineman in Bobby Hart to help with protection, or using fullback Reggie Gilliam to hit him.

CB Eli Apple

Living around so many New York Giants fans, my immediate thoughts about Apple were colored by their opinions of the player. His tumultuous ending with the team that drafted him in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, though, hasn’t been indicative of the career he’s forged since. In two years with the Bengals, Apple has been a legitimate CB1, and while he doesn’t have an interception this season, he’s been outstanding in coverage. Pro Football Reference has him allowing a 58.6% completion rate on passes where he’s the closest defender this year. For reference, that would be better than any Buffalo corner not named Tre’Davious White (53.6%) or Dane Jackson (57.3%). The closest otherwise is Christian Benford, who allowed 60.6% of passes thrown his way to be completed; the highest completion percentage is Elam, at 68.9%. Apple also has eight pass breakups. He’ll probably match up with Stefon Diggs early and often, and it’s a matchup that’s going to go a long way towards determining the success of Buffalo’s offense.