The Buffalo Bills will play their second straight game in the American Midwest, but this time, it’s the Cincinnati Bengals playing host. Last week, the Bills played the Chicago Bears in a game where the “feels like” temperature hovered around -12 degrees Fahrenheit. This week, temperatures at Paycor Stadium are forecast to be around 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
How will Buffalo respond to a big game in a heat wave — or at least what will feel like one, given their recent slate of games? The team’s performance on Monday will go a long way towards helping us all to plan our weekends during the postseason, as the Bills have an 88% chance at the No. 1 seed with a win, and a 15% chance at the top seed with a loss. In short, this game is huge.
With that in mind, here are the five players we’re watching this week in a pivotal game against an outstanding Bengals bunch.
QB Josh Allen
If Buffalo’s quarterback could engage playoff-mode for Monday night, that would be a huge help. Allen is in the midst of another outstanding year, as he’s thrown for 4,029 yards and 32 touchdowns, adding 746 yards and seven touchdowns rushing to boot. He’s also thrown 13 interceptions and fumbled 13 times. Over the course of Buffalo’s current six-game win streak, he’s turned it over five times, with three interceptions and two lost fumbles, while accounting for 15 total touchdowns. Buffalo isn’t winning in spite of their quarterback, as some loudmouth trolls might suggest, but they are winning in more diverse ways. Over this six-game stretch, the Bills are averaging 115 yards rushing from Devin Singletary and James Cook. That’s up from a combined 65 yards per game over the nine contests before this winning streak. That certainly explains Allen’s dip in passing yardage, as he’s failed to hit even 200 yards passing in three of the six games over this win streak. Allen has gutted through an elbow injury, and made big plays when the team has needed them. The Bengals have a strong defense, ranking No. 9 in points allowed and No. 13 in yards allowed. And while they’re just No. 21 in passing yards allowed, they’ve been stingy in terms of passing touchdowns — they rank No. 6 in passing touchdowns allowed so far. Allen’s MVP case has taken a hit over the last month and a half, but he can add to that resume with a big performance under the lights of Monday Night Football. Taking what the defense gives him and trusting his playmakers to make plays will be the big keys to victory on Allen’s end.
WR Stefon Diggs
Teams have been doing a good job limiting Diggs of late, and his production has plummeted as a result. In the first nine games of the year, Diggs averaged 11 targets, eight catches, 109 yards, and one touchdown per game. Over the course of Buffalo’s six-game win streak, Diggs has averaged eight targets, five catches, and 57 yards per game, with a touchdown in every other contest. That “every other” is obviously an average, because he hasn’t scored since securing an eight-yard touchdown in the first half of Buffalo’s 24-10 victory at the New England Patriots on December 1. This would be a good week for offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey to move Diggs around the formation to exploit matchups in space. Tossing the ball to him quickly and allowing Diggs to use his speed and agility to create yards after the catch would be helpful, as well. It’s important to note that the downturn in Diggs’ statistical output corresponds with the increase in production from the running backs, so I don’t think that there’s cause for panic thanks to a lessening of his personal numbers. However, in big games, teams need their best players to do big things. Diggs remains one touchdown shy of tying Bill Brooks for the franchise record in touchdown catches. If he can tie or surpass the record this week, it will give the Bills a great chance at victory.
DE Greg Rousseau
Big players make big plays. In a game where Von Miller would have been the focal point, most of Cincinnati’s attention will likely turn to Groot. That’s because Rousseau is now Buffalo’s top edge rusher with the injured future Hall of Famer, Miller, out of the lineup. Rousseau is second on the team in sacks with seven. He’s second on the team in quarterback hits with 12. And he’s third on the team in snaps played by a defensive end, trailing Miller and Shaq Lawson. This is an excellent breakdown of Hakeem Adeniji, the man expected to start at right tackle on Monday in place of the injured La’el Collins. Rousseau may not be Matt Judon, but we’ve seen Judon neutralized in ways that Rousseau isn’t thanks to the latter’s length and motor. What I noticed about that film breakdown was twofold: first, quarterback Joe Burrow throws the ball fast. It’s in his hands and it’s out to the receiver. That makes it hard to sack him, but it does give a tall, long edge player like Rousseau a chance for batted balls. Groot has four of those this year. He can impact the passing game in multiple ways, and he’ll need to come up big on Monday for Buffalo.
CB Tre’Davious White
Buffalo’s CB1 hasn’t had an easy slate of opponents since returning from an ACL tear, and he’s been challenged to play at his usual level. White has allowed some big completions, and he’s had teams throwing at him more often than he’s accustomed to seeing. Analyst Chris Simms said that, if he were scheming against Buffalo’s defense, he is “throwing at whoever is being covered by 27. Tre’Davious White is not himself out there, and whoever he is covering will be open.” Given that White has allowed an average of 14.4 yards per completion so far, which would be a career-high if it stays, and he’s already allowed a touchdown, something he didn’t do last year, I understand where he’s coming from in saying this. White has also allowed just 53.6% of the passes thrown his way to be completed, however, and he has five pass break-ups on the season, so it’s not as if he’s been a fish out of water, either. Monday is going to be a huge test regardless of whether he’s in zone, matched up in man against Ja’Marr Chase, or dealing with Tee Higgins on the outside. A game like this one is where White needs to be that lockdown guy we know he can be.
S Damar Hamlin
How will the Bengals attack Buffalo’s secondary? Chances are good that, if they see Hamlin playing the deep safety role, they’ll feel comfortable running some go-routes. That’s because Hamlin has been pretty terrible in that area of the field this year. He’s also been prone to taking bad angles against the run, so he’s the clear weak link of the 11 defenders out there. Teams have been able to exploit him and his inexperience at times this season, and an explosive passing attack like Cincinnati’s could do just that if defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier isn’t careful to scheme around it. Using him as more of a robber or an attacking edge player would suit his strengths more, and while he’s missed some tackles in that area, too, it hurts less to turn a two-yard loss into an eight-yard gain than it does to allow a 60-yard touchdown. Hamlin is going to have to play a clean game for Buffalo’s defense to work at maximum efficiency.