Fri, 27 Jan 2023

Five things to watch: Bengals at Bills

Cincinnati Bengals
23 Jan 2023, 20:58 GMT+10

Kyle Williams

The Bengals hit the road for an AFC Divisional clash with Buffalo on Sunday at Highmark Stadium. The game airs at 3 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:

1. Defense takes on high-powered Buffalo offense

The Bengals' defense during the regular season ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed per game (20.1), but will have its work cut out when it faces a Buffalo offense that was second in scoring (28.4). The Bills have put up at least 30 points in four straight games, including 34 in their wild card win over Miami. On the flip side, Cincinnati has held four of its last five opponents below 20 points, using 12 turnovers in that stretch to keep them out of the end zone. Either of those two trends continuing on Sunday will likely determine the outcome of the game.

2. Protection is paramount

Very few weeks throughout an NFL season see an offensive line attract headlines, but the Bengals' situation has become one of the most intriguing aspects of this AFC Divisional matchup. Cincinnati was able to rely on the same five starters for 15 consecutive games, then was dealt a significant blow in three straight contests as right tackle La'el Collins, right guard Alex Cappa and left tackle Jonah Williams all went down with lower body injuries. In their place, the Bengals have turned to Hakeem Adeniji (ROT), Max Scharping (RG) and Jackson Carman (LOT). Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow have both expressed the utmost confidence in their pieced-together line throughout this week, but the numbers surrounding Burrow and his protection paint a clear picture: he is 22-3 since 2021 when being sacked fewer than four times, and 4-8 otherwise.

Though the Bills remain without Von Miller, who suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this season, their pass rush still features second-year edge Greg Rousseau. Rousseau enjoyed a breakout regular season with eight sacks, including three in the team's final four games.

3. Road warriors

The Bengals enter Sunday having won each of their last four road games, the team's longest winning streak away from home since 2015. That streak will be tested by a notoriously raucous Buffalo home crowd, which has done its part to make Highmark Stadium one of the most difficult places to play in the NFL. The Bills are 23-5 since 2020 when playing at the venue, highlighted by a 4-0 record in the postseason.

Last year's postseason run for Cincinnati included wins at top-seeded Tennessee in the AFC Divisional round and at Kansas City in the AFC Championship. If the Bengals want to carve out a similar path, they will need to once again get it done in a less-than-friendly atmosphere.

4. Red zone defense

The Bengals tied for ninth in red zone defense during the regular season, allowing opponents to score a touchdown on just 52 percent of their possessions that reached inside the Cincinnati 20-yard line. Lou Anarumo's unit has hit an even higher level as of late, as offenses going against the Bengals have found the end zone on only three out of nine red zone trips since Week 16. That stretch has notably included two forced fumbles - the first coming with under two minutes left at New England that prevented a possible game-winning touchdown, and the second being the "Fumble in the Jungle" versus Baltimore last week.

Buffalo ranked ninth in red zone offense during the regular season, scoring a touchdown on 60.3 percent of possessions. Three of the Bills' four red zone opportunities in the wild card against Miami resulted in touchdowns, with the other being a field goal. If the Bengals can maintain their bend-but-don't-break style and keep the Bills off the board in the red zone, it would bode well for their chances of advancing to the AFC title game.

5. Big-play wide receivers

Both the Bengals and Bills feature a dynamic duo at the receiver position, and whichever star steps up and makes a key contribution on Sunday will perhaps be the difference in the game. Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Gabe Davis and Stefon Diggs each logged over 800 receiving yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season. What makes them all so effective is their ability to make plays down the field. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stat service, Davis has the most downfield TD catches since 2021 (regular and postseason) with 18, while Chase has the second-most (17) and Diggs the third (16). Higgins, meanwhile, has 32 contested catches since 2021, the fifth-most in the NFL per Pro Football Focus.

Joe Burrow and Josh Allen both give their outside receivers plenty of chances throughout the course of the game, particularly in the playoffs as they did a year ago. Look for more of the same on Sunday as the wideouts headline a star-studded field.

Sign up for Miami News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!