The Buffalo Bills face off against the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend in one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the 2023 NFL season. This is the third time these clubs have met in the 2023 calendar year, and neither of the first two times went well for Buffalo. The Bengals eliminated the Bills from the playoffs last season in a 27-10 drubbing. In the prior meeting on January 2, safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field due to commotio cordis, bringing the whole football world to a screeching halt.
This time around, the Bills are looking to emerge from the Queen City with a much-needed AFC victory. Buffalo is in a tenuous position in terms of playoff tie-breakers at the moment, as all three of their losses have come against AFC foes. With a 1-2 divisional record and a 2-3 conference record, Buffalo needs to stack AFC wins in order to put themselves in better position later on in the season.
In order to beat a Bengals team that seems to have found its footing after a rough start, the Bills must get big-time performances from their big-time players. Here are our five players to watch this week.
QB Josh Allen
Allen and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey seemed to find a rhythm that worked last week, as Allen operated in a quick-strike, fast-paced attack that gave him the chance to read a tough Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense from a spread look. Last year, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his Bengals defense gave Allen some trouble, especially in the playoffs. Using speedier players as blitzers off the edge, namely nickel cornerback Mike Hilton, gave the Bills’ protection some issues. Buffalo needs to have a counter for that in the form of short hot-routes and other passes that quickly attack the spots vacated by the blitz. Perhaps the Bills might even dial up a screen this week — and not just a tunnel screen to a wideout on the outside. Whatever the game plan, the main key to Buffalo’s success is in Allen’s hands. So long as he executes at the level he’s capable, the Bills have a chance to win.
WR Khalil Shakir
After a breakout game last week, Shakir looked to be the answer at WR3 that Buffalo has sought since Cole Beasley’s initial departure following the 2021 season. It was clear that the Bills worked on using Shakir’s ability to find space and settle in the uncovered spots in a defense to their advantage, and Allen obviously prioritized finding his slot wideout early in the contest. Knowing that Shakir has that ability, I expect a similar plan this week as an answer to some of Cincy’s blitzes, especially those that come off the offensive right side. Moving wide receiver Stefon Diggs into the slot is also an option, but knowing that Shakir is a viable security blanket for Allen is a plus, especially given the effectiveness of wide receiver Gabe Davis and tight end Dalton Kincaid last week. All of Buffalo’s pass-catchers need to have a day, but if Shakir is cooking, it bodes really well for the offense as a whole.
DE Leonard Floyd
The defensive line as a whole is a group I’m watching, but Buffalo’s top pass-rusher this year has been the veteran Floyd, who’s currently tied for eighth in the NFL with 6.5 sacks. Someone has to hit quarterback Joe Burrow to disrupt his timing and make him uncomfortable in the pocket, and while I’m anxious to see how much time, if any, defensive tackle Linval Joseph receives in the game, it’s players we do know who are going to be the focus. Floyd is also eighth in the NFL in quarterback hits with 12 so far this season, so he’s been doing his job so far. He’ll need to have a big night on Sunday.
DT Ed Oliver
Speaking of defensive linemen who need to have a big night, No. 91 needs to come up as big as he has all year in this one. Oliver is second in the NFL in tackles for loss right now, having notched a career-high ten so far this season. Throw in a career-high five sacks and it’s clear that Oliver has been worth every penny of his new $68 million contract. Whether it’s Jordan Phillips, Time Settle Jr., Poona Ford, or Linval Joseph next to him, Oliver needs to collapse the middle of Burrow’s pocket and make him feel the heat. If Oliver and Joseph — or whomever the one-tech may be — can keep their linebackers clean, it will help to bottle up running back Joe Mixon, as well.
CB Rasul Douglas
Sure, it’s risky for me to write about the guy who was on the injury report because he “just got here” this week. It’s possible that the Bills won’t play him in his first week with the team. However, I’ll first be watching his status all the way up until the inactives are released at 6:55 on Sunday night. If he’s playing, I’ll be watching to see how many snaps he takes this week. If Buffalo’s cornerbacks are Douglas and Christian Benford, it makes for a much better coverage unit than Benford and Dane Jackson. Douglas was a big-time addition, so my hope is that the Bills realize just how important this game is and they play him this week in some capacity.