The Buffalo Bills didn’t have the most beautiful performance against the Miami Dolphins. In fact, Buffalo made a mess of its playoff opener, nearly falling at the hands of rookie third-string QB Skylar Thompson and Miami.
But the Bills managed to eke out a victory, which says something about Buffalo’s identity this year. As good as everyone expected the Bills to be, they haven’t played well in all four quarters since they blew out the Tennessee Titans in Week 2. The wild thing is, the Bills keep winning, even when they play below their talent level.
The biggest source of volatility has been quarterback Josh Allen. I’d say that he’s the second coming of Cam Newton. But Allen is better than that, even better than Newton when he won MVP in 2015. I’d be willing to bet that Allen will lead the team in rushing and passing against the Bengals on Sunday. That’s just how the Buffalo offense has trended for most of the season.
But credit to offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey: He’s trying to get other playmakers involved. The Bills have gotten the ball to receiver Gabe Davis and tight end Dawson Knox in recent games. Davis had a touchdown and 90 or more yards in the past two games. Knox has a touchdown in each of his past five appearances. And rookie running back James Cook seems to have hurdled the rookie wall — getting better as the season wears on (rather than fading as rookies are prone to do). As the Bills have come to trust Cook more, he has proven a reliable weapon on the ground, providing chunk plays in an offense that had struggled to run the football.
With the Bills and Bengals, I’d be remiss not to revisit Damar Hamlin‘s cardiac arrest in Cincinnati, which led to the cancelation of their matchup just a few weeks ago. Surely, this game will be an emotional one.
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The Bengals are in the middle of a nine-game win streak. Joe Burrow is doing a Peyton Manning impression. Cincinnati’s early-season struggles are a distant memory as the Bengals have rounded into a complete football team through the course of the season. And it’s really not about how you start in the NFL. It’s about how you finish. Burrow is on a tear — even though he played one fewer game, he has completed 68.3% of his passes for 4,475 yards (fifth in NFL), 35 touchdowns (tied for second) and 12 interceptions (tied for 26th). He also rushed for a touchdown in the Bengals’ 24-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round.
Cincinnati’s defense has been very solid and, perhaps, it doesn’t get enough credit for its strong play. The unit is 16th in yards allowed per game and — more importantly — sixth in points allowed per game. The Bengals’ DVOA ranks 11th on defense, which means they’re playing efficiently.
Linebacker Logan Wilson is at the center of what they do. And then they have a gaggle of pass-rushers who can all get to the quarterback, including Trey Hendrickson (8 sacks), Sam Hubbard (6.5) and Joseph Ossai (3.5). So while star receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins didn’t quite go off on offense this year, the team has enjoyed surprising successes from guys like cornerback Eli Apple, the CB1 who allowed a respectable 41 catches on 72 targets for 585 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Key matchup: Burrow vs. Allen
Could we talk about Diggs and Apple? Sure. Could we talk about Chase and Tre’Davious White? Of course. But ultimately, this game comes down to the two quarterbacks, who are working to be the signal-callers who define their generation. Burrow has appeared in a Super Bowl. Allen hasn’t yet. The winner of this game will likely get Patrick Mahomes. There are just so many good quarterback duels as we ramp up the postseason.
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Key stats: Including the playoffs, the Bills have turned the ball over 30 times — only the Colts are worse with 34. Yet Buffalo won games by an average 10.6 PPG (best in league) in the regular season, the third-highest mark in franchise history and just fourth time ever eclipsing 10.0.
The Bengals, on a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, are 9-0 this season when leading after the first quarter. Last week vs. the Ravens, Burrow became the third Bengals player with a pass and rush TD in a playoff game — joining Boomer Esiason (1990 wild card vs. Oilers) and Ken Anderson (Super Bowl XVI vs. 49ers)
Prediction: If the Bills are going to win this game, they will either need to play cleaner than they have been playing — or they have to figure out a way to make the Bengals play messier. Because right now, the Bengals play a little more in control. That’s just the nature of Burrow and Zac Taylor. Allen’s electrifying approach has produced game-changing plays for better and for worse. We saw Allen really hone in and limit his turnovers against the Chiefs in Week 6. I think that’s the version we’ll see on Sunday.
The Bills win in comeback fashion, 35-34.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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