The Cincinnati Bengals visit the Buffalo Bills this week in what should be an epic playoff matchup. These two squads were slated to play on Monday Night Football in Week 17, but after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during the game, it was postponed and eventually declared a no contest. While Sunday’s matchup won’t be a continuation of that game, it will determine who advances to the AFC Championship Game.
Hamlin has progressed to the point where he was discharged from the hospital, and Bills head coach Sean McDermott said recently that Hamlin is at the Bills’ facility almost daily. Hamlin’s recovery has allowed all of us who follow and cover the teams (and, really, all of us who follow the NFL) to breathe a sigh of relief, and having the same two teams who met on that fateful night see each other again just a few weeks later is a bit surreal. However, Hamlin’s good health makes it quite a bit easier to focus on the task at hand, which is what should be a very exciting football game.
If the Bills want to win this weekend, they’ll need to rein in Cincinnati’s stars. Here are our five Bengals to watch on Sunday.
QB Joe Burrow
Much has been made about Bills quarterback Josh Allen and his turnovers, especially last week in Buffalo’s 34-31 victory over the Miami Dolphins. Allen fumbled twice, losing one that was recovered for a touchdown, and he threw two interceptions that led to points for Miami. Allen has thrown 16 interceptions counting those two playoff picks. Burrow, meanwhile, has 12 interceptions this season, which means that he and Allen have something in common: they’re both in the top-ten in interceptions. They’re also two of the league’s top quarterbacks, so each defense is going to need to bring it in order to slow down the offenses this week. Burrow operates differently than Allen does in the sense that, where Allen holds the ball and excels at making off-script plays, Burrow executes his reads in a precise, on-time manner that makes him difficult to stop when that rhythm is flowing. Pressuring him with three or four rushers, though, can flummox him a bit, as it may lead him to hold the ball just a bit longer as he sorts through all the bodies in coverage. The guys over at Cover 1 put out some data showing Burrow’s struggles with 3-man rushes, noting that Buffalo doesn’t do it often, but it’s been a trick to take out of the bag against other elite quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes. Defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier will need to cook up some ways to keep Burrow uncomfortable on Sunday.
WR Tee Higgins
The big, physical wideout is a matchup nightmare for teams, but Buffalo definitely has the corners to stick with him and make his life a little harder this weekend. Whether they want to go with Tre’Davious White on Higgins or a young player like Kaiir Elam, Buffalo won’t be completely outgunned on the outside. I don’t expect the Bills to have any corner travel with a Bengals wideout, and I think I’m in the minority here, but the matchup I like most for Buffalo with Higgins is actually White. While he may give up a little size, as White is 5’11” and Higgins is 6’4”, Higgins isn’t as shifty and quick as his teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. With White still not 100% as he works his way back from an ACL tear last Thanksgiving, I think he has a better chance staying in a physical dogfight than he does chasing Chase around all night. Someone like Kaiir Elam, who is long, fast, and physical, could be an interesting disrupter for Chase. We’ll see a variety of matchups on Sunday for sure, and one thing is certain: Buffalo has to be physical in their coverages, preventing the Bengals’ wideouts from releasing easily at the line and dictating space. Buffalo needs to take the fight to their opponents this week, disrupting the timing of that quick passing game Cincinnati loves to run.
WR Ja’Marr Chase
Whether it’s a go-ball, a slant, a bubble screen, or anything in between, Chase has shown that he can run the whole route tree and run it well. He is sudden in his breaks, he’s strong at the catch point, and he’s physical enough to fight through jams. Giving him a variety of corners who all play different styles could keep him just a little off-balance, and that extra tick could be all the difference in disrupting a pass or sacking Burrow. Chase was able to beat Tre’Davious White early in the game that wasn’t on January 2, but White seemed to take the targets a little personally. He’ll need to be in Chase’s shirt just like he was with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle last week in order for Buffalo to emerge victorious.
OL Jackson Carman
The newest addition to Cincinnati’s offensive line is expected to be the third reserve to start in this one. Max Scharping is already starting at guard for the injured Alex Cappa, and Hakeem Adeniji is in at right tackle for La’el Collins, so what was a very healthy unit for Weeks 1-16 is suddenly very much the opposite. Carman is listed as a guard, but Cincinnati used him at left tackle last week after Jonah Williams went down. Between Shaq Lawson, A.J. Epenesa, and Boogie Basham, someone is going to need to make the loss of the Bengals’ starting left tackle hurt.
LB Logan Wilson
The Wyoming product is a long, rangy middle linebacker in a similar mold as Buffalo’s Tremaine Edmunds. He allows Cincinnati to do plenty on defense thanks to his ability in coverage, and while he might not have many “splash plays” (2.5 sacks, four pass breakups, one interception, and one forced fumble this year), he is the perfect centerpiece to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s defense. Wilson will probably be tasked with playing short zone coverages and with mirroring his former college teammate, quarterback Josh Allen, so that the latter can’t take off and run at will. He’s a big part of the reason why Cincinnati was very good against quarterback runs, but I’ll say that with a caveat: against the Baltimore Ravens, they allowed quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley to rush for 58 and 54 yards, respectively. Allen is the only quarterback who’s close to Jackson as a runner that the Bengals faced off against this year, so there may be plays to be had there if offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is creative. If he can put Wilson in peril, giving him an either/or where he has to choose between his mirror assignment and covering a back or a tight end, it could open up some big gains regardless of what Wilson chooses to do.