Fresh off of victories over divisional foes during NFL Super Wild Card Weekend, the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals have put the finishing touches on their game plans in hopes of securing a trip to the AFC championship game.
Just three weeks ago, these two teams met for a brief encounter that ended 10 minutes into the first quarter after safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. The trauma radiating out of Paycor Field was palpable, and the Week 17 game — one which the entire NFL community held great anticipation for since schedules were revealed — was eventually canceled.
While only three weeks have passed since Buffalo and Cincinnati last gathered to sort out their on-field differences, it feels like much longer, given the gauntlet of discussion reverberating out of an unprecedented cancellation in the NFL. And rightfully so.
There was much at stake that hinged on the results of Week 17’s Monday Night Football clash. Playoff seeding and, with it, likely home-field advantage for the game’s winner. But here we are, three weeks later, and still trying to understand what feels like a messy solution to a situation that had no precedent. The current narrative seems to follow some skewed path towards the Bills having “gamed the system,” and the Bengals getting jobbed despite their unselfish actions bathed in kindness. At the heart of it, certainly everyone involved wishes the Bills-Bengals MNF tilt ended differently for Hamlin, and a more succinct path towards the playoffs.
However, it’s time to move on from the “mess” that leaked out of the NFL’s in-season ruling mere weeks ago. There’s a very important game on the line, and it’s not going to pause to consider anyone’s hurt feelings, or even the idea of fairness. Buffalo and Cincinnati have far too much on the line to remain too distracted. Neither team has a Lombardi Trophy among their accolades, and there may never be a better opportunity to claim one than both have in these playoffs.
But how will the Bengals fare with three starting offensive linemen out for Sunday’s game, while facing a stout Bills defensive front? Will quarterback Joe Burrow have to modify his game, or is his quick-strike rhythmic passing enough to fill in over the space of injuries up front? Does Burrow even have an on-field weakness, which Buffalo can exploit? Also, what makes Cincinnati’s under-appreciated starting linebacker and defensive line groups click?
Once again, I had the pleasure of speaking with Anthony Cosenza, managing editor/podcaster with Cincy Jungle, to find out the answers to all these questions and more. Read on for more of my fantastic discussion below with Anthony!
1. The idea of facing the Bills down three starting linemen is daunting, without question. What do you think the Bengals will realistically do to counter the losses of guard Alex Cappa and offensive tackle Jonah Williams — and how has offensive tackle La’el Collins’ replacement done since his season-ending injury? Does what the team endured during last season’s playoff run benefit them this time?
In terms of play-calling and scheme, we’ll likely see “ball out quickly” pass plays and RPO-style run plays to keep Buffalo’s defense honest. They’ll also likely enlist the help of backup running back Samaje Perine, who is an exceptional pass-blocking back, as well as tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mitchell Wilcox as aids to the tackles.
As for Collins’ replacement, versatile veteran Hakeem Adeniji has filled in admirably. He’s not as stout in the run game as Collins was, but he fares decently against the pass—some would argue actually even better than Collins. He’s started games at both tackle spots and at guard for the Bengals, so he’s a valuable utility guy off of the bench.
The same can be said for Max Scharping, who is Cappa’s replacement. It’s tough because it could be argued that Cappa was the team’s most steady lineman this year, but Scharping is a solid fallback option, starting 33 games at both guard spots the past three seasons with Houston.
I never really thought of it in a way of what they endured last year as a possible benefit in this current situation, but you might be on to a little something there. The Bengals endured far more injuries to highly important players this year and it’s just been “ho-hum, next man up” all year as they improved off of last year’s record on a much tougher schedule.
Joe Burrow is a magician in the pocket as well, so when the predictable pressures come, he will get out of some and make a play. A lot of people forget that the Bengals weathered 15 sacks in three playoff wins last year (two games on the road) with a battered offensive line then, too.
All of that said, a very precarious situation for the Bengals this week and a big reason why a lot of folks (cough, Eric Weddle, cough) aren’t giving them a chance this week.
2. Do you believe Burrow will modify his game at all to counter the issues along the line?
As said above, I think we’ll see quick-hit passes, RPO-style runs and potentially even drawn-up quarterback runs. Burrow is nimbler than some give him credit for, so his escapability and ability to extend plays will be key in this one.
While they will look to pop a big play to Ja’Marr Chase and will likely move him around in an attempt to disguise what they’re doing, I think it’s going to be huge for the Bengals to get big games out of Tee Higgins and Joe Mixon. Perine will contribute here and there, but they’ll rely on him for extra protection, so Mixon will need to contribute on the ground and through the air.
It seems as if the Bills’ defense can be susceptible in the short and intermediate areas of the field, so quick-hitters to Higgins could produce results. Don’t forget about the sticks-mover Tyler Boyd either, who had a touchdown in the Monday night game.
3. If tasked with dissecting Joe Burrow’s incredible overall play, what would you diagnose as his kryptonite?
To use a really strange metaphor, Joe Burrow is kind of like T-1000 in “Terminator 2”, wherein he just keeps coming after you, despite obstacles, hits and whatnot. Even when the chips are down and he’s played the rare bad game, he’ll still have his team in it towards the end.
That being said, one flaw noticed this year and where the turnovers have largely come is in passes being tipped at the line, fluttering into the hands of waiting defenders. Those who have faced him before and/or studied him well have picked up on these tendencies and it’s created problems this year. In fact, nine of his 12 interceptions thrown came against divisional foes with whom he is familiar, with an additional two coming against the guru, Bill Belichick.
Of course, sacks on him can derail promising drives and that’s going to be a talking point with the offensive line this week. He’s overcome that before, but there’s only so much even the best quarterbacks can handle. But, the batted balls with a potential quick-hitting passing attack this week come into focus a bit more than usual.
4. The Bengals have a tremendous linebacker tandem in Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson. Perhaps key to this weekend’s game given their roles throughout the defense, could you give our readers a little primer on what makes them so good — and what it is that they do so well?
A lot of people don’t know this about Pratt, but in his first two years at NC State, they actually used him as a safety. He got too big and they needed more bulk up front, so they transitioned him to linebacker.
It took him a couple of years to blossom, but the past two years, he has been outstanding. From a lack of missed tackles, to utilizing that past safety training and heady overall play, he’s been a gem of a third-round pick.
Wilson was a guy a lot of teams liked in that 2020 Draft. Some were surprised he was on the board in the third-round, but a perceived lack of elite athleticism hurt his stock. He’s a tackling machine, has incredible football IQ (he has the “green dot helmet” for the defense) and has had a knack for creating huge turnovers.
And, in a weird way, what makes them so good is each other. Kind of like a cohesive offensive line, knowing and trusting in what each other is doing so they can focus on their job has been the name of the game. Keep an eye out on these two if the Bills pop a big run/after catch yardage, as they (and the safeties) are exceptional at poking the ball out when you least expect it. They teamed up to force the big Tyler Huntley goal line fumble just last week.
5. Keeping with the defense, the Bengals’ defensive line is ferocious. Are there any weaknesses for the Bills to exploit, or will this be another long day for Josh Allen and the offensive line?
They just do everything pretty well. They stop the run, come up with the occasional sack, pressures and turnovers. While they aren’t eye-popping numbers across the board, it also seems to be the timing in which they come up with the big play.
Last week’s hero, Sam Hubbard, is one of the most well-rounded edge players in the game. He’ll get 7-8 sacks a year, but also defends the run really well. If you go back and look at what the Bengals have done against Patrick Mahomes—playing “contain” with the edges—you’ll likely see some similarities this week in their plan with the similarly-talented Josh Allen. D.J. Reader is also one of the best nose tackles in the game and is incredible against the run.
But, as I said, teams can gain some ground on them. Baltimore had over 150 rushing yards as a team last week with their hydra attack, and the pass-rush is opportunistic, but there isn’t a Myles Garrett or Aaron Donald on the roster. They usually play disciplined, so it will be on the Bills’ backs to keep the defense honest with a good running attack and Allen using a young Ben Roethlisberger-esque tactic of breaking through defensive linemen who contact him and subsequently converting a big play off the missed sack.
6. DraftKings Sportsbook currently lists the Bengals as 5.5-point road cats (meow). Even with the rash of injuries, I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with that figure. Add in what happened last weekend for Buffalo (yes, divisional foes are always — ahem — wild cards), I think this game looks like it could be a last-possession-wins affair. Does the lack of belief in the Bengals pulling off a win in Orchard Park surprise you — and what do you think this narrative gets wrong?
I think the line is relatively fair. The Bengals have the battered O-Line, they’re on the road against a very good team and it’s likely to be windy and/or snowy. So, no, I’m not surprised by the spread or the narratives—this team thrives on being overlooked, though.
As for your “division game last week” comment, the Bengals seem to be getting similar treatment by the media for their perceived lack of a quality win against Baltimore with a backup quarterback. I completely disagree with the disrespect both teams are getting for their respective wins, given that facing a rival three times in a season is a huge task and wins in the playoffs are quality ones, regardless of the end score.
I don’t think we’ll see what could have likely been the shootout we were headed for on Monday night a couple of weeks ago, mainly because of the weather, but I do see a quality game that should be pretty close. Cincinnati is 12-5 against the spread this year, with two of those L’s coming at the beginning of the year and two more the last two games against the Ravens, for whatever that’s worth.
I have the score around 27-24 with either team potentially achieving the win at that end tally.
My thanks again to Anthony Cosenza for taking time to chat with me about this week’s Divisional Round game. The Bills and Bengals are sure to put on a fantastic show, with what should be plenty of offensive fireworks well before the sun has set beyond Highmark Stadium.
Be sure to head over to Cincy Jungle where you can read my thoughts on Anthony’s Bills-related questions about this weekend’s showdown.