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Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals: NFL Divisional Round preview, odds, more

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Gabe Davis and Josh Allen celebrate a Bills touchdown
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabe Davis (13), right, is congratulated by quarterback Josh Allen after his touchdown catch during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

The Divisional Round of the NFL PLayoffs gives us take two of the Bills versus Bengals. These two teams have been at the center of football discourse over the last few weeks not just because of their play on the field – neither team has lost in over two months – but because their scheduled Week 17 matchup was when Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest that resulted in the game being canceled. 

With both teams being betting underdogs to beat Kansas City in the AFC and both star quarterbacks being betting underdogs to top Patrick Mahomes for NFL MVP, this game should feature the fiery energy of two teams with a lot to prove, hoping not to let an opportunity slip through their fingers. 

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Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) at Buffalo Bills (13-3) 

Game Details:

  • Location: Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, NY
  • Time: Sunday, January 22nd at 3:00 p.m. ET
  • Channel: CBS

Betting Stats:

  • MONEYLINE: BUF ML (-240), CIN ML (+196)
  • SPREAD: BUF -5.5
  • OVER/UNDER: 48

 

Here are the key questions/storyline for this AFC Divisional Round matchup:

1) Who Wins the Battle of MVP Also-Rans?

Despite both Josh Allen and Joe Burrow putting together impressive seasons, it seems like both men will fall short in the MVP race to Patrick Mahomes. Heading into Sunday’s game, Josh Allen has completed 63.3% of his passes for 4,283 passing yards and 35 passing TDs with 14 INTs while adding 762 rushing yards, and seven rushing TDs.  Meanwhile, Burrow has completed 68.3% of his passes for 4,475 passing yards with 35 passing TDs and 12 INTs while adding 257 rushing yards, and five rushing TDs. 

It’s pretty clear from the stats that both signal-callers are the driving force behind their team’s respective success, so either defense being able to slow one of them down becomes the most crucial question of the game. 

For Buffalo, it means trying to find ways to get pressure on Burrow, who has the second-quickest release time in the NFL behind only Tom Brady. His quick throws mean the Bills’ defensive ends will need to win their one-on-one battles immediately in order to impact his throws and prevent him from picking a secondary that has been inconsistent without Micah Hyde. That could be a problem since Buffalo ranks 27th in pressure rate without Von Miller. 

For Cincinnati, that will mean helping make sure key #2 continues to happen. 

 

2) Can the Bills Avoid Turnovers?

Turnovers have certainly become an issue for Buffalo of late as they have three turnovers in each of their last three games. They’ve won all three, but this Cincinnati team is better than the Bears, Patriots, and Dolphins, so the Bills cannot give away points or give Joe Burrow and company extra possessions.

Buffalo currently ranks 31st in the NFL with a 15.2% turnover rate, so this has been a problem all season, but Cincinnati may not be best positioned to take advantage of it. The Bengals rank just 24th in the NFL in turnover rate on defense and rank 18th with 13 interceptions on the season.

Will the Bills get better at holding onto the ball or will the Bengals improve at taking it away? The answer could very well determine the outcome of the game.  

 

3) Which Beleaguered Offensive Line Can Step Up?

The Buffalo offensive line has been this team’s Achilles heel. They were ranked 23rd in the NFL this year by Pro Football Focus, with only Jacksonville’s line recording a worse PFF run-blocking grade than the Bills over the course of the season. In their first playoff game, Josh Allen was sacked seven times and was pressured on a career-high 47.8% of his dropbacks. That means basically half the time Allen dropped back to pass, there was a defender in his face. That could be a huge issue against a Bengals team that ranked 12th in the NFL in pressure rate this year. 

However, Cincinnati has its own issues on the offensive line. The team came into the playoffs without offensive tackle La’el Collins after he was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, but on Sunday left tackle Jonah Wiliams suffered a dislocated kneecap. and starting right guard Alex Cappa injured his ankle. Both have been called “week to week” by head coach Zac Taylor, which means the Bengals could be down three starting linemen in Buffalo. If that were to play out, it would be an advantage the Bills would need to capitalize on in order to win. 

 

4) What Will the Bills Do With Their CB2 Situation?

On the other side of the ball, Buffalo’s secondary will have its hands full with Cincinnati’s elite trio of wide receivers. One of the biggest factors in determining how they handle the challenge will be what they do with the cornerback spot opposite Tre’Davious White.

For much of the season, Dane Jackson has started on the outside for the Bills, but his performance has been uninspiring. He is among the team’s leaders in missed tackles, and he has struggled to get his head around in pass coverage, which has led to some big receptions allowed despite playing relatively good coverage. 

When Jackson left last week’s game against Miami with a knee injury, rookie Kaiir Elam stepped in and was a major factor in Buffalo coming back to win the game. He intercepted a critical pass in the third quarter with the Bills trailing 24-20 and then knocked away Skylar Thompson’s 4th-and-6 pass on Miami’s final drive to seal the win for the Bills. All told, Thompson had a 0.0 passer rating when targeting Elam. 

Jackson was listed as limited for the Bills’ practice on Wednesday, which is a good sign for his availability ahead of Sunday’s game. However, whether the team will start him or continue to play him more snaps than Elam is the big question. The rookie is the more physical corner and has made plays more consistently in coverage throughout the season. He has the traits necessary to help the Bills win this matchup, but the team needs to trust him to do so. 

 

5) Which Receiving Corps Will Rise to the Occasion?

When it comes to receiving trios, there are few, if any, better in the NFL than the Bengals. Ja’marr Chase leads the team with 1,046 yards and nine touchdowns despite playing only 12 games this season. Tee Higgins stepped up in Chase’s absence and is second on the team with 1,029 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd rounds out the trio with 762 yards and five touchdowns. 

With 2,837 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns between them, they will be a tough challenge for the Buffalo secondary. Tre’Davious White is beginning to round back into his pre-ACL form, but he’s not quite the lockdown corner he was who can be trusted to erase Chase or Higgins from the gameplan.

However, a beleaguered Ravens secondary held the trio to 147 combined receiving yards in their Wild Card showdown. Chase did have 84 yards and a score, but Baltimore prevented the Bengals receivers from blowing the game wide open, which is likely the best that Buffalo can hope for as well. These receivers will hit a big play or two, but they can’t be allowed to gain consistently huge chunks of yardage. 

They will also have to hope their own receivers can step up to match them.  

There are few better receivers in the game than Stefon Diggs, who leads Buffalo with 1,429 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. He has 61 more targets than the next-best receiver on the team and is clearly to go-to option for Josh Allen, as evidenced by the 114 yards he put up against the Dolphins in the Wild Card win. 

However, Diggs had 100 of those yards in the first half, and too often this season the team has gone away from him when a defense makes adjustments. Considering they have not gotten enough production from their other receivers, that has often led to the Bills’ offense stalling out. 

As a result, the team will need Gabe Davis to step up as he did last week when he put together 113 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins. Davis has repeatedly shown up in the playoffs during his young career, and the team needs him to put a disappointing season behind him and continue to do so if they have any chance of keeping up with the Cincinnati offense. 

The final option for Buffalo is tight end Dawson Knox, who had just 517 yards and six touchdowns this year. However, Knox has five touchdowns in the last five Buffalo playoff games, so even if he isn’t putting up big yardage totals, he is another player who has consistently come through in the playoffs. 

They may not be as well-regarded as the Bengals trio, but the Bills’ big three receiving options will need to match them if they want to advance to the AFC Championship game. 

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Joe Burrow and the Bengals take on the Bills
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) walks off the field following an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Cincinnati, Fla., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. The Bengals defeated the Chief 27-24. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)