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2023 NFL season, Week 16: Four things to watch for in Bengals-Steelers, Bills-Chargers

The Buffalo Bills are potentially among the most dangerous teams still in the playoff mix. The Cincinnati Bengals, once left for dead, have dished out their own level of fear factor with backup quarterback Jake Browning at the helm.

But both teams face road tests on Saturday with their playoff lives hanging by threads. Cincinnati currently sits in the second wild-card slot, No. 6 in the AFC playoff hierarchy. Buffalo is two spots out of the playoff mix for now, in the No. 9 slot in the conference, but currently has a higher probability of making the playoffs at 63% to 45%, per Next Gen Stats.

Their opponents in the Week 16 doubleheader are both down and out.

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Pittsburgh nominally remains in the playoff race (current probability sits at 6%). But the Steelers look to be onto their third starting QB -- Mason Rudolph, who's replacing Mitchell Trubisky -- asKenny Pickett will not suit up against the Bengals in Saturday's opening game. Three straight losses, including two at home to at-the-time 2-10 clubs, have put the Steelers in a dire spot for making the postseason.

In the case of the Chargers, who'll host the Bills in the nightcap, they'll try to play the role of spoilers under interim head coach Giff Smith. The Chargers' 63-21 loss to the Raiders in Week 15 lead to the firings of head coach Brandon Staley and GM Tom Telesco the following day, nailing the team's coffin shut following the season-ending injury to QB Justin Herbert.

Both games figure to shape the AFC playoff picture, and if either the Bengals or Bills lose, it could put them behind the 8-ball before the remainder of Week 16 plays out.

Here are four things to watch for in Saturday's doubleheader:

Cincinnati Bengals
2023 · 8-6-0
Pittsburgh Steelers
2023 · 7-7-0
  • WHERE: Acrisure Stadium (Pittsburgh)
  • WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET | NBC, Universo

  1. Bengals hope to keep Browning cooking, even without Ja’Marr Chase. Browning’s play has been far better than anticipated after replacing an injured Joe Burrow, leading the team to three wins in four starts. Browning has thrown into tight windows yet has completed 73.5% of his passes and has been especially dangerous on play-action throws. He’ll be facing a Steelers secondary that will be shorthanded, with Damontae Kazee suspended for the remainder of the season and Minkah Fitzpatrick ruled out with a knee injury. With Keanu Neal also on IR, that means Pittsburgh will be without its top three safeties. Trenton Thompson also has been listed on the injury report, so cornerback Patrick Peterson might have to move to safety alongside practice-squad callup Eric Rowe. The Steelers typically count on their pass rush -- led by T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith -- carrying the load, but they’ve been less effective at generating pressure recently. However, the Bengals could be playing with a short deck, too. Chase suffered an AC joint sprain in last week’s win over the Vikings and will miss Saturday's game. It’s a big loss, but the Bengals know after last week that Tee Higgins can step up as the go-to guy. Higgins’ insane TD grab in the final moments of regulation last week helped salvage a win in overtime. The Bengals also have leaned on their screen game with RBs Chase Brown and Joe Mixon, and tight end Tanner Hudson has emerged as a receiving threat. 
  2. Steelers set to turn to Rudolph under center. Rudolph saw mop-up action last weekend, replacing an ineffective Trubisky in a loss to the Colts, and is in line to start Saturday as Pickett remains out due to an ankle injury. It was Rudolph’s first regular-season action in two years; the last time he started was a 16-16 tie against the Lions in 2021. There should be chances for him to thrive Saturday, as the Bengals have the second-lowest passing defensive success rate (50.8%) in 2023, behind only the Cardinals. (Cincinnati also has the lowest rushing defensive success rate.) But can Rudolph count on his receivers? George Pickens and Diontae Johnson have been the Steelers’ two most-targeted pass catchers, and Johnson comes in with a three-game TD streak after not scoring for two years. But their effort has been lacking at times, and Pickens' effort, in particular, has become a major storyline in the Steel City. Pickens gave half-hearted efforts while blocking on a Jaylen Warren run last week and then on a tackle attempt following an INT against the Colts. Johnson also gave up on a fumble recovery in Pittsburgh's first matchup against Bengals on Nov. 26. If they’re not reliable options, Warren and Najee Harris have led the ground game and are checkdown options. Tight end Pat Freiermuth also could be a busy target, assuming his knee injury isn’t an issue. The Bengals have especially struggled to contain tight ends this season, including Freiermuth, who had career highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (120) against them in the first meeting.

Buffalo Bills
2023 · 8-6-0
Los Angeles Chargers
2023 · 5-9-0
  • WHERE: SoFi Stadium (Inglewood, Calif.)
  • WHEN: 8 p.m. ET | Peacock

  1. Bills' hot offense is licking its chops for this matchup. How will the Bills attack the Chargers? Perhaps we should ask: How won’t they? The Chargers have taken their lumps defensively for much of the season, and they’re coming off a 42-point drubbing by the Raiders last week. Crazy as it sounds, that might not have been their worst defensive performance of the season. The Chargers have been killed by yards after the catch, ranking 31st at plus-352 for the season, and they’ve been especially vulnerable defending the middle of the field. This is all music to the Bills’ ears, as they’ve rediscovered their potency offensively under interim coordinator Joe Brady, topping the 30-point mark in three of their past four games, even while Stefon Diggs has put up moderate numbers. Last week’s run-game dominance against the Cowboys showed the need to put the ball in James Cook’s hands, which can take pressure off quarterback Josh Allen. Brady has used more pre-snap motion and called for more designed runs by Allen since taking over, and he has to feel like the Bills can dominate from the opening series, even with some injuries to monitor. Tight ends Dalton Kincaid (shoulder) and Dawson Knox (wrist) appeared on the injury report this week but do not carry a designation into Saturday. Cook battled an illness this week, but he is also good to go for Saturday. Allen must be mindful of Chargers pass rusher Khalil Mack, who has 15 sacks and five forced fumbles, but Allen doesn’t get sacked much and the Chargers’ pass rush has suffered with Joey Bosa out.
  2. Stick hopes to build off promising second half, Chargers hope for ball control. The Chargers are shaking off last week’s wicked Vegas hangover and hope to finish the season strong under interim coach Giff Smith, who makes his NFL debut in that role. He’ll stick with Stick as his QB after the first-time starter struggled to get much going early but warmed up in the second half against the Raiders (14 of 18 passing, 182 yards, three TDs, INT). Stick will be without Keenan Allen (heel) again this week, but Joshua Palmer returned to have a big night with a 79-yard TD in Week 15. That was one of the first downfield shots of last week’s game. Most of Stick’s targets were underneath, which could mean busy days for Gerald Everett and Austin Ekeler, but the Chargers would love for Quentin Johnston to get going to finish off a hot-and-cold rookie season on the upswing. The problem? The Bills’ pass defense stopped Dak Prescott in his tracks last week and has done well vs. non-star QBs this season. What the Chargers absolutely cannot do is turn the ball over. They did that five times against the Raiders (and 11 times combined in their past three losses), and it didn’t turn out well. In the Chargers’ five victories they have only three giveaways. Stick wants to show he can generate big plays, but doing so carelessly won’t help his team pull the major upset.

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