The 5-0 Cincinnati Bengals travel to Buffalo on Sunday to face a 3-2 Bills team that should provide a solid challenge for Andy Dalton and the impressive weapons around him. The Bengals will enter their bye week after this and would like nothing more than to be sitting atop the AFC North with a 6-0 record, but Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan has a history of slowing down good offenses and he has the defensive pieces to challenge the Bengals.
The Bills pulled out an unlikely win over the Titans last week, continuing their season-long trend of losing one, winning one. This week they'll have to take on the undefeated Bengals most likely without starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who is unlikely to play due to a sprained MCL. That puts EJ Manuel under center for Buffalo, owner of a 6-8 lifetime record after being drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft. Manuel showed some potential in the past and this might be his last shot to seize the starting job.
Games are never boring when Rex Ryan is involved and this will be one of those sneaky, fascinating games that tells us a lot about both of these teams' place in the AFC.
Cincinnati at Buffalo
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Line: Bengals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. What does Rex do to slow down Dalton, Eifert and Green?
There might not be a more creative and aggressive defensive coach in the NFL than Rex Ryan, and the list of "elite" quarterbacks he's beaten is significant. So far the Bills' defense hasn't quite lived up to expectations given their talent level and Ryan's schemes, ranking just 13th overall in points and 24th in passing yards per game. However they are third in rushing defense and that shifts the focus to the Bengals' passing attack, ranked fifth in the league. Rookie cornerback Ronald Darby has been exceptional so far, and with Stephon Gilmore the Bills have the best No. 1 WR coverage DVOA in football. This could force the Bengals to win with Eifert and Giovani Benard, instead of relying on A.J. Green. But the Bills are also fourth in the league against tight ends. Expect Marvin Jones to be a key player.
2. Can Manuel manage the game?
The Bills have had some tough injuries on offense. Leading rusher Karlos Williams (concussion) will miss another game, while Tyrod Taylor (MCL sprain), Sammy Watkins (calf) and Percy Harvin (hip) are listed as questionable. The offense could get back LeSean McCoy, who is probable after missing the past two games with a hamstring issue. That leaves tight end Charles Clay and wide receiver Robert Woods as the healthiest primary weapons. Should Taylor not be able to play, no one should expect Manuel to tear up this Bengals defense that ranks 10th in points allowed; but what's important is that he not give the game away on a silver platter with a bunch of turnovers. With the Bengals likely to be less concerned with the Bills' ground game with a backfield that's operating at less than 100 percent, Manuel must find a way to move the ball through the air safely.
3. Can Dalton decipher the Bills' pass rush?
The Bills' pre-snap disguise is amongst the best in the NFL and they have as good a front four as there is in football. The Bengals' offensive line is no slouch either, but when Ryan is able to confuse offenses the result is often free defenders coming in hot on the quarterback. Dalton must process what the Bills' front is doing and understand when the overload blitzes are coming and when everyone is dropping into coverage. The Bills will badly need turnovers to help their offense out in the field position battle, which is why Dalton can't let confusion and miscommunication lead to game-changing mistakes.
The Bengals are flying high, coming off a stunning, come-from-behind, overtime home win over the Seahawks, one of the best teams in the league. But this test on the road is not one which the Bengals should take lightly. Rex Ryan's teams are never intimidated and nothing would get the Bills back on track like dethroning an undefeated team with less than their best lineup. The Bills certainly have no margin for error on the offensive side of the ball, but their defense matches up well with the talented Bengals offense and should give them plenty of problems at times.