The Bills and Bengals were just about nobody’s pick to make a Super Bowl run; but at the same time, few probably figured both would have losing records when they met in November.
But here we are. It’s not yet Thanksgiving, and already this has the feel of an elimination game in the AFC playoff race. Buffalo has the better record at 4–5, but it most definitely needs this game more. While Cincinnati is just 3–5–1, the Bengals also sit just a game and a half behind AFC North-leading Baltimore — with two games against the Ravens still to play. The Bills, on the other hand, are not catching New England in the AFC East; any hopes for the postseason come from leapfrogging at least five teams in the wild card race. They might need to run the table to pull that off.
The Bengals are coming off of a 21-20 Monday night loss to the Giants on the road during which their offense struggled badly, managing just 12 first downs. They hit one big 71-yard pass to tight end Tyler Eifert — and gained just 193 yards on their other 51 offensive plays. Buffalo had last week off after giving Seattle all it could handle on the road the previous Monday night. Can the rested Bills take advantage of the reeling Bengals on a short week? If they can’t, their playoff hopes likely go from slim to none.
Buffalo at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Bengals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Bengals must slow down the Bills’ run game
It’s an old-school football cliché that rarely applies to the modern game but... the Bills don’t play a modern game on offense. More than perhaps any team in the NFL, Buffalo is going to run the ball and stick with it almost regardless of the situation. The Bills rank second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (155.0) and lead the league in yards per carry (5.3). Stopping them will be a challenge for the Bengals, who rank 24th in rushing yards per game allowed (116.8) and 25th in yards per carry allowed (4.4). One plus for Cincinnati: the matchup of All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins against Buffalo center Ryan Groy. Groy will be making his first start in place of Pro Bowler Eric Wood, who broke his leg against Seattle. That’s a huge loss for the Bills, and one the Bengals must exploit.
2. Andy Dalton needs time to hit the deep ball
Buffalo’s defense is improved over last season, looking more like a typical Rex Ryan outfit at times. But the Bills have been so prone to giving up big plays that they were re-opening competitions for starting spots in the secondary during the bye week. Only Cleveland is allowing more yards per attempt than the Bills (8.27), and Buffalo has already allowed seven passes of 50 yards or more. That’s tied for the most in the league with Oakland and more such plays than the Bills have allowed in any full season during their 16-year playoff drought. That’s good news for A.J. Green — and tight end Tyler Eifert. Buffalo is allowing 10.6 yards per target to tight ends, by far the worst in the NFL. The only question is whether Dalton will have to time to find them. The Bills lead the NFL with 30 sacks, while only two teams have allowed more sacks than the Bengals’ 28.
3. Tyrod Taylor’s legs are an x-factor
When these teams met in Buffalo last season, Cincinnati faced EJ Manuel because Taylor was injured. The Bills’ quarterback just gave the Seahawks fits even though he finished with just 43 yards on the ground, and Seattle defenders raved about him after the game. He repeatedly kept plays alive to find receivers and also rushed for a touchdown and a two-point conversion. In fact, Taylor has a rushing touchdown in each of his last three games. Despite not having faced a quarterback with anything close to Taylor’s scrambling ability, the Bengals are tied for 22nd in sacks with just 17 and rank 25th in rushing yards allowed to quarterbacks.
The last time the Bengals faced a team that makes its living on the ground, they gave up 180 rushing yards in a loss at Dallas. Center Eric Wood’s injury will hurt the Bills, but even last week the Giants rushed for a season-high 122 yards against Cincinnati. Buffalo is the more desperate team and has had an extra week to figure out how to make a run at a playoff spot. The Bills will find a way to stay alive for one more week — barely.