Orchard Park, N.Y. — When the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals were supposed to play in Week 17 earlier this month, there was so much on the line.
The Bills were chasing the no. 1 seed and would capture it if they won their final two games. The Bengals and Bills, two of the AFC’s elite teams, had never played against each other with Joe Burrow and Josh Allen at quarterback. How would both defenses fare against the other team’s MVP-caliber passer?
Less than a quarter into the game, Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field and his heart stopped. The medical team on the site resuscitated the 24-year-old and he has since made an astounding recovery. He’s back in the Bills’ facility trying to recreate a normal daily routine. Players and staff members are focusing on football now that Hamlin has progressed in his journey back to full health.
Now the two teams are set to meet again and finally answer all the questions that formed before the first time. The Bills are the no. 2 seed and the Bengals are no. 3 because the Jan. 2 game was canceled. This time a trip to the AFC title game is on the line. Neither team has lost in more than two months - the Bills have won eight straight and the Bengals have won nine in a row.
The scene shifts from Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati to Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park for Sunday’s divisional-round matchup at 3 p.m. on CBS. The Bills are 13-1 all-time at home in the playoffs and Sean McDermott is a perfect 4-0 at home in the playoffs since taking the job in 2017. Burrow went 2-0 in his only two road playoff games last season.
Something has to give.
The best place to start in this game is probably with the turnover battle. The Bengals have just two games with more than two turnovers since their win streak started on Nov. 6. The Bills have three games with three turnovers during their win streak and they’ve come in the last three games they’ve played.
McDermott knows that turning the ball over at the rate his Buffalo Bills have since Christmas is a recipe for disaster - especially in January football.
“That’s not the way to live your life if you want to win games,” he said this week. “It’s proven in the NFL.”
Turnovers have been the biggest topic of conversation with Bills players and coaches this week. McDermott said he trusts his players to correct the errors as the sloppy play has trended in a concerning direction. The sixth-year coach joked that he might have been going to church more in November and December when the Bills had a total of three turnovers in the first five games of their win streak.
“Anytime you have the ball in your hand, there’s calculated risk involved, there’s risk involved overall,” McDermott said. “It’s just an important piece of winning games, complimentary football, and it’s clear that we make it awfully hard on ourselves sometimes. The good part of that is we figure out ways to win in spite of that sometimes.”
McDermott said that he’s addressed the turnover problems directly and indirectly with the team. Allen said players have to have a short memory in this league.
“There is a thin line between being aggressive and being a little bit reckless,” he said. “You can’t just try to eliminate every single turnover and play scared. The way that we play, we’re aggressive - we want to score touchdowns. ... We don’t wanna play scared at the end of the day.”
The Bills and Bengals both have the unique challenge of preparing for each other less than a month after they were supposed to play. Each team had the ball once and Hamlin went down on the Bengals’ second drive. McDermott said that both sides will look at the plays that happened to prepare for the rematch, but they have to stay true to themselves at the same time.
Bills center Mitch Morse said he started from square one.
“We only had 10 plays on offense, maybe 11 on that one drive,” he said. “So there’s not much film to work with what we had. ... I like to start from the very beginning with some familiarity. You go back to your notes because you keep notebooks, and you revisit those to see what kind of keys. And we’ll go through the third downs and all that stuff. So there will be some familiarity in that part for sure.”
The Bengals are 0-3 in games this season when Joe Burrow is sacked 5 times or more.
Here is a 🧵 after I went back and watched all 4 of the Ravens' sacks last week and how they achieved each. Baltimore blitzed Burrow just 3 times in the entire game.
The Bengals defense is known for taking away the opponent’s no. 1 threat on offense. Stefon Diggs went over 100 yards last week early in the second quarter, but the Miami Dolphins limited him to just one catch the rest of the game. If that’s the tactic Cincinnati takes with the Bills this week, other players on offense have to step up.
Bills receiver Gabe Davis had over 100 yards and a touchdown last week and is as likely a candidate as anyone to have a big game against a Bengals secondary that’s banged up.
“We saw firsthand, they’re a tough team,” Davis said. “Like I said, got a lot of respect for those guys. ... We give them credit. We know how good they are. We respect everything about them. This is gonna be a fun Sunday at 3 p.m. So we’ll see what happens.”
The Bills have been as good as any team in the league in the red zone since their win streak started. They were scoring touchdowns on just 53% of trips inside the 20 in their first nine games, but have ticked that up to 69% in their last eight games. The Ravens went just 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Bengals last week and lost by a touchdown when Sam Hubbard ran back a fumble at the goal line 98 yards for the game-winner.
When the Bengals have the ball, Burrow’s offensive line is going to look a lot different than it did in Week 17. Right tackle La’el Collins is out for the season and since then Cincinnati has lost left tackle Jonah Williams and right guard Alex Cappa.
The Bills defensive line has looked much different without Von Miller rushing the passer since he suffered a season-ending injury on Thanksgiving. With the Bengals banged up on their line, young pass rushers Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham and A.J. Epenesa have to step up to affect the quarterback. In games where Burrow has been sacked five times in a game this season, the Bengals are 0-3.
McDermott ruled out Micah Hyde early in the week as the veteran safety continues to try and work his way back from a neck injury back in September. He’s in his 21-day practice window and the team is taking it one week at a time. Receiver Jamison Crowder is also in his window while working back from a broken ankle. He’s been ruled out this week, too.
The Bills had a pretty clean Friday injury report. Defensive tackles DaQuan Jones (calf) and Jordan Phillips (shoulder) are both questionable for the game but each player practiced this week in some capacity.
Tre’Davious White is gaining steam, Kaiir Elam is coming off the signature game of his rookie season, the Bills haven’t lost all season with Jordan Poyer in the lineup, and Buffalo is 13-1 all time at home in the playoffs. Josh Allen has 12 touchdown passes in his last four games and three of those have been in Orchard Park. He’ll limit the turnovers, the Bills defense will make things hard on Burrow behind battered o-line, and Bills win in a classic. - Parrino
SCORE: Bills 28, Bengals 27
This is truly a coin-flip type of game. The biggest difference from their matchup a few weeks ago is the health of the Bengals. The team was already down La’el Collins in Week 17, but they’ve lost two starting linemen since that time. That will be the difference in the game with Buffalo being able to slow down the Bengals’ run game and get after Joe Burrow. - Ryan Talbot
SCORE: Bills 30, Bengals 24READ MORE
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