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2022 NFL season: Five things to watch for in Bengals-Bills in AFC Divisional Round 

Cincinnati Bengals
2022 · 13-4-0
Buffalo Bills
2022 · 14-3-0

The course of the NFL season changed dramatically the last time the Bengals and Bills met. It will do so again, albeit for very different reasons.

Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest paused and later canceled the teams’ meeting in Week 17, which would have a ripple effect on the entire NFL playoff structure, with both clubs unable to improve their conference seeding and take over the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs from the Chiefs.

Now they meet in the Divisional Round in Buffalo in a win-or-go-home setting.

Hamlin’s incredible recovery has given this story an uplifting turn, and that allows us to consider both teams as possible Super Bowl contenders, even with their obvious flaws.

Both quarterbacks, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, figure to receive some most valuable player consideration. Each team is loaded with offensive skill talent, too. And both teams feature defenses capable of turning in big performances. 

Coming off tougher-than-expected Super Wild Card Weekend victories against backup quarterbacks, each club also has potential flaws that could lead to their playoff exits. The Bengals haven’t lost since Halloween but suddenly are faced with some concerning offensive line issues. The Bills, meanwhile, continue to show a penchant for letting lesser opponents hang around too long, thanks mostly to a nagging turnover problem.

If the Bills beat the Bengals and the Chiefs defeat the Jaguars in the Divisional Round, Buffalo and Kansas City would travel to Atlanta for a unique neutral-site AFC Championship Game in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 29. If any other combination of results happen in the two games, the conference title game will be played at the highest-remaining seed’s home stadium.

Here are five things to watch for when the Bengals visit the Bills on Sunday in the Divisional Round:

  1. Josh Allen turnovers have become a concern. Following a Week 10 loss to the Vikings -- a game the Bills had about a dozen chances to win -- the spotlight grew on Allen and his rising turnover total, having thrown a pair of interceptions in three straight games then. In the five games that followed that loss, Allen took the criticism to heart and lost only three balls (one intercepiton, two lost fumbles). Might he need an intervention again? Allen gave away two INTs and a fumble returned for a TD against Miami last weekend and now has six turnovers in his past three outings, letting the Bears, Patriots and Dolphins hang around too long. Allen is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the game today, but his fast-and-loose style has bitten the Bills a few times. Now with the margin for error slimmed against a strong Bengals defense, that reckless approach can’t fly very much. One thing that emerged during that cleaner five-game stretch was Allen being used more as a runner. It’s something the Bills are sometimes hesitant to do, dialing it back initially after Allen hurt his elbow in Week 9. They only put Allen in a designed-run situation a few times versus Miami, but considering how the Bengals struggled with the Ravens’ read-option game, it might be something to sprinkle in to the game plan.
  2. Joe Burrow’s well-being and the Bengals’ offensive line. The Bengals started this season 0-2, and there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery as to why. Sure, the defense could have played better. But Burrow taking 13 sacks in those two games is a pretty good place to start. The problem had been mostly fixed. Yet injuries now have put the offensive line back in the crosshairs. The Bengals could be without three starting offensive linemen against a good Bills pass rush, even with Buffalo linebacker Von Miller out for the season. Right tackle La’el Collins is on injured reserve, and left tackle Jonah Williams and right guard Alex Cappa have been deemed “week to week” with injuries and won't play Sunday. That means you will likely see a starting five of Hakeem Adeniji, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Jackson Carman and Max Scharping against Buffalo. The Bills haven’t been able to get home as easily rushing four as they did when Miller was healthy. However, bringing extra pressure last week opened some chances for Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds and offered cleaner blocking looks for Ed Oliver, Gregory Rousseau and the rest of a talented front.
  3. Bills secondary has stiff test versus Bengals playmakers. There wasn’t much to glean from the first nine-plus minutes of the first meeting, but the Bengals clearly looked explosive in their seven offensive snaps, which included an opening-drive TD. If the Bills’ pass rush doesn’t get home consistently, then the pressure on their back-end defenders will increase significantly. Tre’Davious White, who recently returned to action, is still getting up to speed, although even with a pass interference in that canceled game, White appeared to play one of his best games Sunday against Miami. That’s good news because fellow starter Dane Jackson (knee) remains a question mark this week, and the Bills were already shorthanded at safety with Hamlin out. Rookie Kaiir Elam stepped in for Jackson and had a few big plays late against the Dolphins to help seal the victory, but if he has to start and face, say, Tee Higgins, then Elam is likely to have his hands quite full. What makes the challenge tougher is the Bengals run out of pass sets and pass out of run sets. Plus, Burrow gets the ball out quickly, and he has three receivers, a tight end and a back he can throw to in almost any spot. Buffalo will have its hands full all game if the pressure isn’t there.
  4. Red-zone execution could decide the game. The Bills were the second-highest scoring team in 2022, less than a point per game behind No. 1 Kansas City. But it’s hard not to wonder how many more points the Bills would have had if they had been more efficient in the red zone. The Bills ranked ninth in the league in touchdown percentage in that part of the field, but Allen’s five red-zone interceptions led the NFL by two this season -- and all five have come since Week 8. The Bills also have a league-worst seven turnovers in the red zone as a team. That’s concerning in and of itself, but it’s even more so with the Bengals on tap. Cincinnati’s defense has allowed only seven TDs over its past 16 red-zone series, and that includes two fumble recoveries and two fourth-down stops. The Bengals held the Ravens to 1 for 4 inside the 20, including Sam Hubbard’s epic 98-yard fumble recovery last week. Conversely, Burrow has only one red-zone pick this season, although it came recently against New England. The Bengals finished the regular season as the fifth-most efficient red-zone offense and went 2 for 2 last week against Baltimore. But the Bills only allowed 17.9 points per game this season, thanks in part to the No. 2 overall red-zone defense, with a TD allowance rate of 44.9%. The more efficient team close to pay dirt will have an excellent chance to win this game. 
  5. Which No. 2 shines brightest? The Bills have Stefon Diggs. The Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase. Each easily could be mentioned among the league’s best wide receivers. Both have taken over games for the Bills and Bengals, respectively, and they’ve been the go-to targets in recent games. But with each defense likely to do everything in its power to take the top options away, who else will step up? For Cincinnati, there’s an obvious candidate in Higgins, who was hot last postseason with a two-TD Super Bowl and who potentially could exploit a shorthanded Bills secondary. There’s also Tyler Boyd, who stepped up when Chase was hurt this season, and also efficient tight end Hayden Hurst. For Buffalo, Gabe Davis is the most likely option. He’s coming off a massive game against the Dolphins and is capable of a four-TD performance, like the one he authored in the thrilling playoff loss at Arrowhead a year ago. Davis also can be a bit hit or miss, however, which could open the door for TE Dawson Knox to step up. The Bengals did struggle to contain tight ends for much of the season, and Knox enters the game with a five-game touchdown streak.

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