Just a few weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals were set to square off in when of the biggest games of the season. An unfortunate tragedy struck as Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered an on-field cardiac arrest, and the game was never completed. Hamlin is thankfully out of the hospital, having avoided neurological damage, and is hopefully on his way to a full recovery.
In the meantime, the two teams are set to kick off and give NFL fans the game they didn't get to see a few weeks back, as they square off Sunday afternoon in the AFC divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Just last year, the Bills lost in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs, in one of the best football games in recent memory. The Bengals, meanwhile, beat those same Chiefs in the AFC title game, and eventually represented the conference in the Super Bowl.
Now, the Bills and Bengals will square off for the right to face the winner of the Chiefs vs. Jaguars game in the conference title game next week. Which one will it be? We're glad you asked. Before we break down the matchup and give a prediction, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Sunday, Jan. 22 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
Location: Highmark Stadium (Orchard Park, New York)
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
Odds: Bills -5.5, O/U 49
When the Bengals have the ball
Over the last few weeks, the Cincinnati offensive line has been decimated by injuries. Right tackle La'el Collins is out for the year with a torn ACL. Right guard Alex Cappa suffered an ankle injury in Week 18 and remains out this Sunday. Left tackle Jonah Williams sustained a knee injury last week against the Ravens and is also out this week. That means the Bengals will start Hakeem Adeniji, Max Scharping and Jackson Carman alongside Ted Karras rookie guard Cordell Volson.
That's not a good situation to be in against one of the NFL's best defensive fronts -- even if that front remains without Von Miller. The Bills can roll out Greg Rousseau, Shaq Lawson, A.J. Epenesa, Boogie Basham, Ed Oliver, and Tim Settle, and figures to have at least one, if not both of DaQuan Jones and Jordan Phillips as well. Buffalo's pressure rate dropped from 35.3% when Miller was healthy to just 30.3% in his absence, according to TruMedia; but last week against the Dolphins, the Bills bumped that rate up to 39.2%.
Joe Burrow can neutralize pressure to a certain extent by getting the ball out quickly, just as he did for much of the regular season. His average time to throw this season was just 2.55 seconds, tied for second in the NFL behind only Tom Brady. But Burrow also threw downfield far less often this season (8.3% of his pass attempts traveled 20 yards in the air) than he did a year ago (11.9% of passes).
Sacrificing downfield explosive for quickness and getting the ball into the hands of playmakers worked quite well for Cincinnati at times this season, especially when Burrow could get the ball into the hands of Ja'Marr Chase, who is rarely taken down by the first defender. But Buffalo's defense is designed to dare opponents to check it down in exactly that fashion, so the Bills can use their fantastic team speed to fly to the ball and limit yards after the catch. Chase is better than almost anyone in the league at creating those, while Tee Higgins is one of the NFL's best contested catch guys, able to win at the point of reception by using his body and wingspan to keep opposing defensive backs from getting their hands on the ball.
Buffalo is typically content to play zone and rush only four defenders, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier throw a bit of a changeup this week after seeing how much success the Ravens had throwing the Bengals off their game with simulated pressures and exotic looks behind them. The Bills have the bodies and the athleticism to change the picture for Burrow after the snap, and they can still play their preferred zone looks while mixing up whether they're in Cover-2, Cover-3, man across the board, quarters, or something else. Keeping Burrow from knowing before the snap what he will see once he drops back to pass is the best way to make him hesitate, and give the pass rush enough time to overwhelm the offensive line.
Burrow can make plays outside of the structure of the offense, and he also has more than enough trust in Chase, Higgins, and Tyler Boyd to make plays on the ball if he just gets rid of it quickly before the rush has time to hit home. Those guys can absolutely reward Burrow's faith, but it'll be tough to do against Buffalo's secondary.
Given their offensive line issues, it seems highly unlikely that the Bengals will be able to control this game on the ground. Their run game was not overly successful even when the line was fully healthy, and Buffalo sports one of the NFL's best run defenses. The Bengals are far better off putting the game on Burrow's shoulders, and trusting him to beat the Bills with the combination of his mind, his quick trigger, and his exemplary weapons on the perimeter.
When the Bills have the ball
The last time these two teams squared off, we only saw the Buffalo offense for one drive. Because of that, much of what we wrote in the matchups preview for that game still applies:
The Bills and Bengals have not played each other since Josh Allen became, well, this version of Josh Allen. The last time these two teams played was back in 2019, when Allen was still early in his second NFL season. That lack of familiarity is why I'm excited to see what sort of bespoke game plan Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo comes up with to handle the unique challenge Allen poses for a defense.
We've seen him do a great job against Patrick Mahomes, the only other quarterback in Allen's stratosphere as a multi-dimensional playmaker, so it'll be fascinating to see if the way Anarumo attacks Allen is at all similar to the way he has worked things against Mahomes -- and if not, how the game plan itself will differ. The Buffalo and Kansas City offenses are not actually all that similar despite being built around similarly-gifted quarterbacks, but it would not be surprising at all if Anarumo borrowed at least some facets of the Kansas City game plan for this matchup.
Namely, dropping as many defenders as possible into coverage and rushing only three or four seems like a strong way to counteract what Buffalo likes to do. It could muck up the Bills' deep crossing routes, and layering the intermediate area of the field with multiple defenders could help take advantage of Allen's recent inaccuracy by positioning players for picks on overthrown balls. It would also allow the Bengals to devote multiple coverage defenders to Stefon Diggs, and force Allen to beat them with his secondary and tertiary targets. Especially given the injuries and youth in the secondary, it seems like a pretty good strategy.
The Bills got good games from the ancillary targets last week against the Dolphins, with Gabe Davis catching six passes for 113 yards and a touchdown, Dawson Knox catching three for 20 and a touchdown, and Cole Beasley and Khalil Shakir combining for five receptions for 86 yards and another score. Diggs had seven catches for 114 yards, but was extremely quiet after the first quarter. I have a feeling that if the Bengals can force the Bills to win exactly the way they did last week, with Diggs going quiet for most of the game and the other guys doing most of the damage the rest of the way, they'll be quite happy with themselves. The question is whether they can execute that plan given their relative weakness at cornerback. Eli Apple and Cam Taylor-Britt (and Dax Hill, who took three penalties last week) can be beaten, and if Allen gets Diggs -- or even Davis -- matched up one-on-one with either of them, he should be expected to take his shots.
If and when he does, the Bengals absolutely have to capitalize by coming away with turnovers on the throws where he is either inaccurate or overaggressive. Allen has been all too willing to force things during the latter portion of this season, and we saw just last week how his tendency to do so can keep any opponent in the game with Buffalo for longer than expected. (And the Bengals are not just any opponent, given the quality of their offense.)
The key there is forcing pressure, but also containing him from taking off down the field to run with the ball. It's a tricky balance to maintain, but Buffalo's subpar offensive line makes it possible -- especially given that Cincinnati sports a strong pass-rush duo in Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. If the Bengals can get pressure off the right side of the Bills line and force Allen to scramble left instead of right (he's far better throwing when on the move toward his strong side), that's all the better for them.
The Bills tend to save Allen's designed runs for the biggest games, and it's possible we could see a heavy dose of them here so they can change the math up front. Cincinnati is extremely tough to run on when D.J. Reader is on the field, so even though the Bills have been more effective running it with Devin Singletary and James Cook of late, it might be a good idea to throw a little something different at the Bengals in the hopes of finding a bit more success than might otherwise be possible on the ground.
Prediction: Bills 26, Bengals 23