8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bills -1.5, Over/Under: 49.5
The final Monday Night of the regular season is here, folks, and it appears that the best has been saved for last, as the Buffalo Bills look to wrap up the number one seed in this matchup with the surging Cincinnati Bengals, who are in turn one win away from clinching their second straight AFC North title. With one week to go before the playoffs, there is no team in which obtaining home field is more imperative for than the Bills (12-3, 1st in AFC East), who after seeing each of their last three postseason runs end in another team’s home are looking to remain in Orchard Park for the duration of January for the first time since the early 90s. So, here is what is on the line for Buffalo coming into this HUGE primetime showdown: with a win, they clinch homefield throughout the playoffs, though even with a loss they will hold the tiebreaker over the Chiefs, whom they bested head-to-head back in mid-October. However, a loss tonight coupled with a defeat at home against the Patriots in next weekend’s finale could mean they fall from to the second or maybe even the third seed pending how Kansas City and Cincinnati fair in their respective climaxes. Why is this important, you ask? Well, despite winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in over thirty years, (Head Coach) Sean McDermott’s troops have seen their campaign end prematurely at Arrowhead Stadium in each of the previous two playoffs, including last year’s epic 42-36 shootout in overtime. Simply put, this team wants the path to Super Bowl LVIII to come through Highmark Stadium, where the frigid temperatures and wind gusts that are typical in Western New York this time of year should give them the advantage needed to finally get over the hump. With that said, you don’t get to this point without being a very talented group, which is the case on both sides of the football. The Bills rank fourth in the NFL in scoring (28.0) and second in total offense (411.9), while relinquishing the second-fewest points (17.5) and ranking fifth in total defense (317.7), despite suffering some heavy losses on the latter of the two. McDermott & Co went all in during the offseason in signing (future Hall of Famer) Von Miller to bring his pass-rushing nous to a unit that needed it, and while he has certainly had a profound impact on his teammates, he’s unfortunately sidelined for the rest of the season with a ruptured ACL. With that said, Buffalo has handled themselves well without him, yielding just 16.0 points on 291.5 total yards in the four games during his absence. Of course, it helps to have a bonafide STUD at Quarterback, with (Pro-Bowler) Josh Allen once again looking like an MVP candidate; the 26-year-old continues to be one of the most prolific at his position, completing 63.4% of his passes for 268.6 yards per game on 6.85 net yards per attempt, with thirty-two touchdowns opposed to thirteen interceptions, while also serving as a large part of the run game with 746 yards and another seven scores on a healthy 6.5 yards per carry. How effective has Allen (pictured below) been when tucking and running with the football? Well, nearly HALF (45.2%) of his 115 carries have gone for a first down, the most of any QB with over 100 rushes this season. There was initially some concern with the transition from (former Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll to Ken Dorsey as the Offense’s playcaller, though they were quelled quickly as the former QB Coach has done a solid job of trying to institute some more balance into an attack that been prone to relying a little too much on signal-caller. After churning out 129.9 yards per game on the ground last season, the Bills have run wild for 142.8 yards (7th Overall) on a very healthy 5.3 yards per carry (2nd Overall) with Dorsey calling plays, leading to most effective third down offense in the league, converting on a whopping 49.7% of their attempts.
When we last saw the Bills, they took another step towards clinching the number one seed in the AFC by winning their sixth consecutive game in a 35-13 drubbing of the lowly Bears at Soldier Field. In utterly frigid temperatures and windy conditions, Buffalo overcame a slow start in which they could muster just six points and 157 total yards in the first half, seventy-one of which came on the opening drive of the afternoon. However, the second half was very different as the visitors settled into their surroundings and took the home side to the proverbial woodshed, outscoring them 29-3 over that period, with (young Tailbacks) Devin Singletary and James Cook breaking touchdown runs of thirty-three and twenty-two yards. In the end, Allen & Co outgained the hosts 426-209 in total yardage, 20-11 in first downs, and 254-80 in rushing yards despite committing three turnovers and missing a field goal. Allen completed 15-of-26 passes for just 172 yards with two touchdowns and interceptions apiece, though much of that could be chalked up to some inhospitable conditions. With that said, the running game was more prominent than it had been all season, fittingly against one of the worst teams in defending it. as Singletary amassed 106 yards on just a dozen carries, while Cook added ninety-nine yards of his own on eleven carries, with Allen chipping in with another forty-one yards and a third score on six rushes. Kudos to (Defensive Coordinator) Leslie Frazier’s charges, who did what most of the league had failed to do up to that point, which was containing Justin Fields, who was relegated to just eleven rushing yards on seven carries. Looking to tonight’s matchup, this may be Allen’s first meeting with Joe Burrow (much more on him in a bit), but it’s not his first encounter with the Bengals, whom he bested in a 21017 affair back in 2019. In his fifteenth career start, the eventual Pro-Bowler would complete 23-of-36 passes for 243 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while rushing for another forty-six yards on nine carries, as Buffalo fended off a late rally from the visitors. From a betting perspective, the Bills have won eight of their last ten games straight-up, but it has been a different story in terms of covering the spread, which is something that they’ve done just three times during that span. They’re also just 5-5 against the spread in their last ten trips away from Orchard Park, while owning a 3-6-1 record in that regard when favored by the oddsmakers, which has been quite often of late. Furthermore, Buffalo has failed to cover the spread in after allowing less than ninety rushing yards in the previous game, while posting a 1-4 mark against the line in their last five in which they’ve covered the spread a week prior, with both scenarios being the case tonight. On the injury front, McDermott’s side is getting healthier at the right time with (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Stefon Diggs, (young Tight End) Dawson Knox, (veteran Center) Mitch Morse, (Defensive Tackle) Jordan Phillips, and (Linebacker) Matt Milano all listed as probable to take the field tonight, while (veteran Safey) Jordan Poyer and (young Cornerback) Christian Benford are each questionable with respective knee and oblique ailments, which is likely to have an impact as they prepare to matchup with Cincinnati’s loaded Receiving Corps.
Meanwhile, for the second year in a row the Bengals (11-4, 1st in AFC North) are proving to be a second half team, which could very well crown them as division champions for a second consecutive season. Of course, after coming up short in Super Bowl LVIII last February, Cincinnati has much grander designs than simply winning the north once again, for they have an opportunity to still sneak into the number one overall seed in the AFC. Granted, (Head Coach) Zac Taylor’s troops are going to have to take care of business over these last two weeks while at the same time receiving a good deal of help to reach that goal; not only will they have to defeat Buffalo and Baltimore in successive weeks, but they’ll also need both the Bills and Chiefs to lose in their respective finales. On the flipside, there is an argument to be made that securing the bye may not be in their best interest, for there is no team in the league at the moment with more momentum to their backs than these cats. Last season, Cincy won five of their last eight games en route to pulling upset after upset to get to the Super Bowl, and this year they’re currently in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, the longest active run in the NFL. So, what has gotten into these felines, you ask? Well, while (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo’s Defense held things together throughout the first half of the campaign, the Offense has really settled into a groove. Since suffering a narrow 19-17 defeat at the Ravens, the attack has erupted for 28.3 points on 383.3 total yards, while completing a very healthy 47.9% of their third downs to keep the chains moving. Of course, the Bengals have a Pro-Bowl Quarterback of their own, with Joe Burrow picking up where he left off a year ago. On the season, the former number one overall pick has completed 69.0% of his passes for an average of 284.0 yards on 6.66 net yards per attempt, with thirty-four touchdowns in comparison to twelve interceptions, while even rushing for 247 and another five scores to boot. Though there haven’t been as many big plays as the year before, largely due to the fact that (reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year) Ja’Marr Chase missed roughly a month with a hip injury, Burrow (pictured below) has become more surgical than ever, content with taking what the Defense gives him before taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit them. Coming into the season, the major theme on this side of the football was protecting the 26-year-old, particularly after shipping a league-high FIFTY-ONE sacks and another NINETEEN in the playoffs last year. As a result, the franchise renovated the Offensive Line, adding FOUR new starters in an attempt to keep him upright and clean. After a sloppy start (thirteen sacks in the first two games), Burrow has been dropped for a loss on just twenty-six occasions over the following thirteen contests, which is a testament to the precious chemistry that they’ve managed to build in the trenches. During this seven-game winning streak, Burrow has completed 68.7% of his passes for 275.9 yards on 7.26 net yards per attempt, with seventeen sacks in comparison to six interceptions, all the while suffering just ten sacks along the way. however, fate is a cruel thing, and that Line will now be tested following the departure of (Right Tackle) La’el Collins, who tore both his ACL and MCL in last weekend’s 22-18 victory over the Patriots (more on that one in a bit). Starting every game this season on the right flank, the 29-year-old arrived via free agency, and participated in over 95% of his team’s offensive snaps in all but one game this season. Hakeem Adeniji, who took over for Collins last Sunday, is in his third season with the franchise since being selected in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and will be making his fifteenth career start.
When we last saw the Bengals, they extended this current winning streak to seven games by escaping New England with a 22-18 victory. In all honesty, this one wasn’t nearly as close as that final score would suggest, for Cincinnati led 22-0 at halftime before visibly taking their foot off the proverbial gas pedal, opening the door for the Patriots to get back into the affair. While the hosts punted on their first four possessions of the game, the visitors had no such problems, outgaining them 316 to 70! However, the second half was a calamity of errors for Taylor’s cats, who turned it over twice (including a pick six to open the third period) and missed a field goal in a windy day from Foxborough. Thankfully, the Pats’ inept attack revealed itself in the final stanza, for after recovering a fumble in their opponent’s territory with just over three minutes remaining in the contest, they gave the ball right back as Rhamondre Stevenson lost a crucial fumble from Cincy’s five-yard line, ending the threat. When it was all said and done, the visiting side amassed 442 total yards on twenty-eight first downs in comparison to just 285 on fifteen for the home side, with the former possessing the pigskin for a commanding 36:48. Burrow completed 40-of-52 passes for 375 yards three touchdowns and two interceptions, while (young Receiver) Tee Higgins hauled in eight receptions for 128 yads and a touchdown, with the unheralded Trenton Irwin reeling in two scores along with forty-five yards on three catches. Defensively, Anarumo’s troops made life miserable for Mac Jones & Co, sacking the sophomore Quarterback four times, hitting him on six occasions, and totaling a dozen pressures on the afternoon. Looking to tonight’s matchup, this is the first encounter in what figures to be quite the budding rivalry between Burrow and Allen, two of the finest young Quarterbacks in the league today. From a betting perspective, the Bengals have been on a tear, covering the spread in nine of their last ten games overall, including each of the last five contests regardless of the venue. They’ve also covered the spread in five straight home outings, though are just 4-6 against the spread in their last ten meetings with the Bills, including that previous encounter three years ago. Furthermore, being an underdog has served Cincinnati well of late, for they have covered the spread in eight consecutive games since when getting points by the oddsmakers. On the injury front, we covered the status of Collins moving forward, though there are other issues that Taylor & Co are dealing with, namely the health of Defensive Ends, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. The former missed their 34-23 rally over the Buccaneers two weeks ago with a hand injury, while Hubbard is expected to be sidelined for at least one more week with a lingering calf issue. Both players have been instrumental in generating pressure for a Defense that rarely blitzes these days, accounting for 12.5 of the team’s twenty-six sacks (29th Overall). However, (veteran Defensive Tackle) D.J. Reader is likely to suit up tonight after his availability was left in question due to a personal matter.