Once the playoff seedings were finalized at the end of Week 18, we knew that a potential matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals was likely in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. After both the Bills and the Bengals struggled mightily with division rivals, that matchup has come to fruition. Buffalo and Cincinnati play for the right to go to the AFC Championship Game.
For the Bengals, this would be their second-straight AFC title game, as they advanced to and won the game against the Kansas City Chiefs last year. For the Bills, this would be their second appearance in the AFC Championship Game in three seasons, as they lost in the AFC title game at Arrowhead in the 2020 NFL Playoffs.
Cincinnati has never advanced to the Conference Championship Game in consecutive seasons in its franchise history. Buffalo has never defeated Cincinnati in a playoff game in franchise history, losing to the Bengals at Riverfront Stadium in the 1981 and 1988 playoffs. These current teams have never played each other in a playoff game, either.
What does all of this historical context mean? Absolutely nothing. What we know is that two excellent football teams are set to play, and if the Bills are going to win, they’ll need big performances from their key players. Here are five players we’re watching this weekend.
QB Josh Allen
Playoff Josh wasn’t quite ready to roll last week, as Allen lacked his usual deadly efficiency in the postseason. He still managed to complete 59% of his passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns, but he lost a fumble that the Miami Dolphins returned for a touchdown, and he threw two interceptions that gave the Dolphins short fields right before halftime. The Bills were able to survive those mistakes against a Miami offense led by rookie third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson, but they won’t be able to overcome a Cincinnati offensive machine led by Joe Burrow. Am I saying that Allen needs to play a conservative, ball-control game? That he needs to forgo deep shots in favor of a dink-and-dunk attack all afternoon? Absolutely not. Allen draws plenty of on-field comparisons to another gunslinger former quarterback, Brett Favre, who was known just as much for his amazing touchdowns as he was his head-scratching interceptions.
But I want to compare Allen to someone in a different sport for a minute. Really, I look at Allen as I would someone like Steph Curry, the amazing guard for the Golden State Warriors. His game is shooting the three. Are there going to be nights where he goes 4-for-18 from beyond the arc? Yep. Will there be some grumbling that, on those nights, he should just take the ball to the basket more so that he can draw fouls and beat teams from the free-throw line? Sure. But ultimately, shooters shoot. Allen is a shooter. He needs to take his shots. Skarekrow had a great breakdown earlier this week showing that it’s not so easy as taking the easy money on every failed deep ball. Part of what makes Allen great is that he knows he can make cartoonish throws happen. Part of what makes Allen frustrating sometimes is that he tries to make those cartoonish throws happen and they don’t always work. Shooters shoot. Allen needs to take the opportunities in front of him while remaining confident in what’s brought him to where he is. Against the NFL’s No. 23 pass defense in terms of yards allowed, he’ll have some chances.
WR Gabe Davis
Playoff Gabe activated last week, as Davis caught six of the nine passes Allen threw his way, totaling 113 yards and a touchdown in the 34-31 victory. With attention sure to go towards teammate Stefon Diggs, it will be up to the secondary targets to capitalize on single coverage. Davis has a size advantage on every Bengals corner other than Tre Flowers, who has yet to practice this week thanks to a hamstring injury. If the Bengals use a bracket coverage on Diggs, that will leave Davis in favorable matchups on the outside. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey could ensure that he sees those favorable matchups by doing some creative, but simple, things in terms of where each wideout lines up. Moving Diggs into the slot on the same side as Davis, for example, could cause issues in communication. Bringing Davis tighter in the formation could start to bend the coverage rules of the Bengals’ defense, as well. Moving the Bills’ offensive weapons around will help create the matchups Buffalo wants. Davis had a disappointing regular season, but another big playoff game could make him a bona fide folk hero. He, too, will have plenty of opportunities.
DT Jordan Phillips
Call me crazy, but I think Phillips playing could be one of the biggest boosts to Buffalo defensively that the team could realistically see this season. With a battered Bengals offensive line, the Bills need to be able to pressure Joe Burrow with their front four pass rushers. Quarterbacks hate nothing more than quick pressure from 300-pound defensive tackles right in their face. Between Phillips and Ed Oliver, Buffalo has a strong pair of interior pass rushers. This is a game where I’d like to see defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier use Phillips and Oliver together, as they both can collapse the pocket at the three-tech spot, and they can occupy plenty of space and attention at the one-tech spot, too. They can’t take too many snaps away from DaQuan Jones, but in obvious passing situations, a line of Greg Rousseau, Phillips, Oliver, and A.J. Epenesa or Shaq Lawson can guard against a surprise draw and put a lot of pressure on Burrow. Phillips’ availability is one of my big keys this week.
CB Tre’Davious White
The Bengals went right after White in the January 2 “no contest,” and given his play over the last two weeks, it seems that White took that personally. Whether he’s on Ja’Marr Chase or Tee Higgins, he’ll need his A-game to shut down a prolific passing attack. Working in Buffalo’s favor is the health, or lack thereof, of the Bengals’ offensive line, which should limit the team’s ability to run long-developing deep routes. Mac Jones and Skylar Thompson aren’t half the quarterback that Burrow is, and while the Dolphins have a similarly deadly duo of wideouts in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the man slinging the ball wasn’t of the same caliber as the quarterback Buffalo sees this week. White may not be fully back, but he has been better. He’ll need to be the best version of himself this week.
CB Kaiir Elam
For the love of everything, can this guy just please take the majority of the reps across from White this week? He’s proven time and again that he’s a better cover man than Dane Jackson, and it was Elam’s interception that led to the touchdown that gave Buffalo their winning margin last week. He is physical enough to deal with Higgins, speedy enough to deal with Chase, and tough enough to handle a weak Cincinnati rushing attack. With Jackson dealing with a knee injury, maybe this is the time that Elam finally steps in as the CB2 we thought general manager Brandon Beane drafted in April. Christian Benford has been a healthy scratch for two weeks, too, and he could factor in here if he’s active this week. Elam, though, is the guy who’s the linchpin, as he was literally drafted for matchups just like this one.