The Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals are set to close out Week 17 tonight, with a Monday Night Football rumble in the jungle. The stakes couldn’t be larger for both teams’ postseason seeding hopes with just two games to go in the regular season. Tonight marks the first opportunity for quarterbacks Josh Allen and Joe Burrow to square off — and a re-match might not be too far off in the future.
If you’re anything like me, you spend more time than you probably should wondering questions such as “Where did ‘Who Dey’ even come from?” Well, wonder no more. The Bengals, despite a wealth of talent throughout the roster — especially on offense — came out of nowhere last season to capture the AFC Championship and Lamar Hunt Trophy en route to Super Bowl LVI. With a phenomenal franchise quarterback in Burrow and an embarrassment of riches at receiver, the Bengals have the look of a team primed to represent the AFC once again in February’s Super Bowl.
Sure, that’s all on the table again, but only now — following what was a difficult fall, where Cincinnati dropped to 4-4 by the end of October. Once the Halloween candy went on clearance, the Bengals filled their pockets with wins, and now own a seven-game winning streak heading into their Week 17 matchup with the Bills on one of the NFL’s biggest stages.
Cincinnati’s defense has played well all season, ranked ninth in points allowed per game (20.4) and seventh in rushing yards allowed per game (106.4). In most metrics, they rank similarly to the Bills. There aren’t a lot of household names yet among that unit, but it feels like a matter of time before things change.
But what’s behind that slow start? How might the Bengals go about replacing injured right tackle La’el Collins, and who are some of the team’s unsung offensive playmakers? Plus, how should the Bills go about attacking Cincy’s defense, and is Buffalo’s run offense dangerous in Week 17?
ESPN’s Football Power Index had an interesting take this week with their simulation projection for Bills-Bengals. It feels... off. But the worldwide leader also featured a story about the team’s historic ATS run dating to last season. For thoughts on that and those questions above, I spoke with Anthony Cosenza, Managing Editor/Podcaster with Cincy Jungle, ahead of tonight’s primetime showdown.
1. What do you make of such a slow start by the Bengals (4-4 to now seven wins in a row), and how has the team gone about fixing what appeared wrong in the fall?
Really, I chalk the Bengals’ slow start off to some new pieces being implemented and opposing defenses showing more two deep safety looks. The latter caused the Bengals to alter their offensive attack, giving them brief growing pains.
I’ve become very impressed at a few things with this year’s Bengals team this year in getting back to the playoffs and having the slim inside track on the AFC North race. The first is their ability to transform their plan of attack on offense, as mentioned above. A lot of folks thought they hit the dreaded “Super Bowl Slump” early on, but they changed up what they do and have now forced opposing defenses to alter their scheme, instead of the other way around.
The other is their ability to overcome major injuries. Star players like Ja’Marr Chase, D.J. Reader, Chidobe Awuzie, Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Tyler Boyd, Hayden Hurst, Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, Mike Hilton, and others have all missed varying degrees of time this year. Chase missed four games and they went 3-1, while the defense continues to frustrate the opposition, despite major personnel losses.
2. The loss of La’el Collins is a massive blow for the Bengals so late in the season, and after having such consistency along the line to this point. Who do you believe earns Collins’ snaps this week, and how do you predict his evening will unfold?
Last week, Hakeem Adeniji, a versatile backup lineman, came in when Collins went down last week. The prevailing opinion was that he’d get the nod this week and going forward, but Zac Taylor has seemingly left that a bit of an open competition.
Entering the conversation is Isaiah Prince, who started games late last year when Riley Reiff similarly went down with a season-ending injury. The postseason was particularly rough for Prince, but his linemates last year weren’t as talented as the rebuilt group this year.
Some think Prince may be the guy because he has a similar play style and strengths to that of Collins (stout in the run game). However, Adeniji’s relative steadiness seems to also be coveted. We’ll see.
3. Cincinnati’s nucleus of skill players are household names now, between Burrow, Chase, Higgins, Boyd, and Mixon. That’s without even mentioning the wealth of talent surrounding those guys. Who, on offense, should Bills Mafia get to know as someone who could have a huge impact on the game.
I’ll give you three names to watch on offense. The first is tight end Hayden Hurst. He’s been out the past couple of games with a calf issue, but the prevailing opinion is that he’ll play, and he’s a solid intermediate range weapon.
Another is wide receiver Trenton Irwin, who has stepped up admirably in the slot with Boyd nursing a dislocated finger. His hard work on the practice squad the past couple of years has paid off, and he was an eyelash away from a hat trick last week (did have two touchdown grabs, though).
Finally, running back Samaje Perine is a guy whose impact varies wildly week-to-week. He filled in for Joe Mixon really well, but with No. 28 back, Perine is again his backup. He’ll make the occasional nice run and catch, but is also very valuable in pass protection.
4. How, if you were scheming to beat Cincy’s defense, would you go about attacking them — and what would you avoid subjecting your offense to?
This is a really good question and I’m not sure I have the answer. Even when offenses make some first half progress, Lou Anarumo adjusts, and the unit clamps down on the opposition.
What I wouldn’t do is attempt to run near D.J. Reader in the middle of the defense. He’s been instrumental in bottling up Derrick Henry, Najee Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and other good backs all year. Cincinnati’s edge defenders (Hendrickson and Hubbard) are also good against the run, but both are hurting this week, so there may be room outside.
I suppose targeting the cornerbacks is a good place to start, too, but an offense would have to hope Eli Apple is on a down day and Cam Taylor-Britt (an emerging rookie who has shown improvement) gets confused with what’s being shown to them.
This defense is a jack-of-all trades, while not really a master of none at all levels, if that makes sense. That’s why it takes special quarterbacks like a Josh Allen to create things when they don’t seem to be there, bringing a “what else can we do?” type of response to the types of plays he can make.
5. The Bills are the only team this season to run for 100-plus yards in every game. Andrew Whitworth continually mentions Buffalo’s running game as a key component to their success. Do you think the Bengals will struggle to stop the Bills’ triumvirate of Singletary, Cook, and Allen?
I think Allen can provide problems, in some fashion. He’s so big, hard to bring down, and good at creating off-script that even an uber-disciplined defense like the Bengals’ could let up the occasional QB run.
Most teams, quality lines, star backs and “traditional” rushing attacks have simply had trouble against the Bengals’ run defense. Reader, the Bengals’ edges, as well as linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have all swarmed to the ball. Throw in strong safety Vonn Bell to that mix and teams just can’t make headway.
The occasional “jet sweep” to a wide receiver and/or gadget play for a run has provided the infrequent headache, so that may be something to look for (and it’s part of the reason why I think the San Francisco 49ers wouldn’t be a good matchup for Cincinnati).
6. Our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook list the Bengals as slight home undercats. What gives? Both teams carry fantastic win streaks into MNF, but why do you believe the Bengals aren’t (by and large) favored to win at home this week?
It could be from a number of factors. One being that some could think the Bengals’ past couple of wins (big comeback versus Tampa Bay and barely hanging on versus New England last week) had some “flukey-ness” to them, and they’re due for a reality check against an elite team.
As mentioned, they’re getting healthier, but guys are banged up. Those who are coming back (Hubbard, Hendrickson, Hurst, Boyd, and others) are either game-time decisions, or could be on “pitch-counts” for snaps.
Unfortunately, my personal belief is that there is still a stigma of “because it’s the Bengals,” in terms of not being able to win these games in these types of moments. Even with their magical run last year, everyone was immediately writing them off before the season began, and their 0-2 start as a non-playoff team, yet here we are.
I think the line is accurate, and I believe this to be a “last one to have the ball goes down for the winning score at the gun” type of games. I also see the O/U at 49.5 being accurate, with each team likely being in that 24-points scored range.
My thanks to Anthony for helping get us ready for tonight’s showdown at Paycor Stadium. Be sure to head over to Cincy Jungle to read my thoughts on this game and the Bills ahead of Monday Night Football!