3:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Bills -5, Over/Under: 48
With half of the Divisional Round of these 2023 NFL Playoffs in the books, the next participant in next weekend’s Conference Championship Round is set to be decided as the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills battle for the second time in three weeks, this time from Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. Of course, these teams will be forever linked by the events of that previous encounter, which was ultimately deemed a no-contest by the NFL after the near-death of (Buffalo Safety) Demar Hamlin, whose life was saved by the medical staff on hand, creating a domino effect across the AFC landscape. Basically, both teams stood to ascend to the number one seed in the conference with a victory, with that fateful decision prohibiting that from happening, eventually ensuring that they would meet again. Coming into this rematch, which isn’t really a rematch, the Bengals (12-4, 1st in AFC North) are fresh off of securing their second consecutive division title, with that no-contest clinching first place in the north via win percentage, making their season finale against the Ravens all but meaningless (apart from a bizarre coin flip scenario, though fortunately it didn’t come to that). However, they have their eyes on grander things, particularly the Lombardi Trophy after falling short in last year’s Super Bowl, 23-20 to the Rams. Upon the start of this postseason, one would have to like their chances of getting back to Super Sunday but given the events that took place in their wild, 24-17 victory over Balitmore in last weekend’s Wild Card affair (much more on that one in a bit), their probability of doing so took a MAJOR hit. So, what in the name of Anthony Munoz has happened in Cincinnati, you ask? Well, it’s awfully ironic that a team featuring the likes of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Joe Burrow and arguably the most dynamic Receiving Corps in the league can be rendered inert by a decimated Offensive Line, that could be down as many as three starters in this afternoon’s showdown in West New York. Of course, that position group was the cats’ biggest weakness last season, in which Burrow was sacked an NFL-high FIFTY-ONE times, including another nineteen in the playoffs. (Head Coach) Zac Taylor and (Lead Executive) Duke Tobin set out to renovate this unit in the offseason, signing three new starters, including (Center) Ted Karras, (Guard) Alex Cappa, and (Tackle) La’el Collins. Granted, it took some time for this group to develop the requisite chemistry, particularly with Burrow (pictured below) sitting out the entirety of the preseason, though nobody fathomed that they would have shipped thirteen sacks in the first two games, which each coincidentally ending in defeat. However, continuity is key, as the quintet of big uglies went on to start every game of the campaign up until Week Sixteen, when Collins suffered tears in both his ACL and MCL, ending his first campaign with the franchise. During that period, they permitted just twenty-eight sacks, equating to a sack percentage of 5.41%, which is far cry from the 8.9% that Burrow endured a year ago. It’s no surprise that better protection has led to a much more prolific Offense, with the 26-year-old able to make proper use of the plethora of weapons at his disposal. During that 13-game stretch, the Bengals have averaged 27.2 points per game on 371.1 total yards, with Burrow completing 69.9% of his throws for an average of 286.4 yards on 7.47 net yards per attempt, with thirty-six total touchdowns in comparison to committing nine turnovers. Unfortunately, the blows didn’t stop there, as Cappa came up lame in the finale against the Ravens, relegating him to the sidelines for last weekend’s Wild card rematch with the birds. Lastly, (Left Tackle) Jonah Williams’ knee buckled midway through that affair, with team doctors eventually proclaiming it a dislocated kneecap, all but assuring his absence for the remainder of the playoffs. Needless to say, this is a HUGE turn of events for the Bengals, or more particularly Burrow, who despite enjoying much better protection over the course of the regular season, has been sacked six times over the last two weeks alone, to say nothing of the litany of occasions in which he is forced to get rid of the football early by either checking down to a hot read or throwing it away altogether. On the season, the 26-year-old completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 279.7 yards on 6.52 net yards per attempt (down from 7.43 last year), with a career-high thirty-five touchdowns opposed to twelve interceptions, while taking forty-one sacks, equating to a much more palatable sack percentage of 6.3% (down from 8.9% last season). The question moving forward though is this: by shifting to a more conservative approach out of necessity, how will this Offense manage to keep up with the higher-powered attacks of Buffalo or Kansas City, who could easily erupt for 30+ points on any given Sunday? Despite those heavy losses in the trenches, Taylor’s troops could rest easier knowing that they wouldn’t need to score a ton of points against Baltimore, who due to their own injury woes hadn’t scored more than seventeen points in seven weeks. That won’t be the case this evening.
When we last saw the Bengals, the bested the Ravens for the second week in a row, though this one was far more difficult as the hosts escaped with a narrow 24-17 victory. With Lamar Jackson once again sidelined due to a knee injury of his own, many thought that Baltimore would roll over and die, but that wasn’t the case as they proved to be quite a nuisance for Cincinnati, who fended off a late rally to advance to the Divisional Round. The hosts took an early 9-0 lead after (Sophomore Kicker) Evan McPherson got things started with a 39-yard field goal on the opening drive, while (young Linebacker) Akeem Davis-Gaither picked off Tyler Huntley at his own 40-yard line, eventually leading to a 7-yard touchdown strike from Burrow to (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Ja’Marr Chase (McPherson missed the PAT). However, the visitors would find their rhythm, scoring a touchdown of their own, before forcing and recovering a fumble from (former Ravens Tight End) Hayden Hurst, setting up the go-ahead field goal courtesy of Justin Tucker. After stopping the blackbirds on their first drive of the second half, Burrow led his side on 12-play, 83-yard drive that bled over seven minutes of game-time, ending in a scoring sneak into the end zone by the Quarterback, who would then find (young Receiver) Tee Higgins for the two-point conversion to make it 17-10 midway through the third period. The Ravens would strike right back, tying the score on the ensuing drive, and following a quick three-and-out, managed to advance all the way to Cincy’s goal line, where everything changed. On a fourth-and-goal from the one, Huntley attempted to lunge over the line of scrimmage, but was stood up by the Defense, with (young Linebacker) Logan Wilson punching the ball out of his hands, recovered by (veteran Defensive End) Sam Hubbard, who returned it all the way for six, completing the longest fumble return in playoff history (98 yards). When it was all said and done, the Bengals could muster just 234 total yards, rushing for a mere fifty-one yards on eighteen carries, while Burrow completed 23-of-32 passes for 209 yards and that touchdown, though he was sacked on four occasions and hit eight times. However, (Defensive Coordinator) Lou Anarumo’s unit did their job in limiting the Ravens to 3-of-11 on third down and forcing those two turnovers, which led directly to thirteen points. Looking to this battle with the Bills, these teams have not met since 2019, when Taylor’s charges were bested in a narrow 21-17 affair at Orchard Park. From a betting perspective, Cincinnati is 7-3 against the spread over their last ten games overall regardless of the venue, while taking it up another notch on the road, covering the line in eight of their last ten trips away from Paycor Stadium. Furthermore, they’ve been near-perfect as an underdog, owning a 9-1 mark against the spread over the last ten instances when they’ve been gifted points by the oddsmakers, including each of the last eight such contests. They have also covered the number in seven consecutive outings after amassing fewer than 250 total yards in the previous week, which is the case today. On the injury front, Williams and Collins are out of action this evening, though Cappa’s status is still up in the air as he has been listed as questionable. Starting in their place are the likes of Hakeem Adeniji, Max Scharping, and Jackson Carman, who will likely kick out to Tackle. Look for D’Ante Smith to take over on the interior after playing one snap due to an illness that has hampered him over the past two weeks, again leaving his status for this showdown in Buffalo questionable.
Meanwhile, for a third consecutive season, the Bills (13-3, 1st in AFC East) have claimed their division’s crown, and for the third year in a row they find themselves in the divisional round of the playoffs with designs of much greater things. However, what started off as a legitimate Super Bowl campaign was dealt a pair of major blows, the first affecting their play on the field and the second, their psyche. Following their exit for last January’s playoffs, an epic 42-36 loss at the Chiefs, (Head Coach) Sean McDermott and (General Manager) Brandon Beane went about bolstering their Defense, signing (eight-time Pro-Bowler) Von Miller, fresh off a Super Bowl run with the Rams. Even at 33-years of age, Miller proved to be a lethal pass-rusher for Buffalo, amassing eight sacks, ten tackles for loss, a dozen hits, and twenty-seven pressures through the first eleven games. However, he tore his ACL during a fateful Thanksgiving Day clash with the Lions, leaving the Defense without a game-changing weapon that they paid handsomely for ($120 million over 6 years). Since losing the veteran, the Bills haven’t taken much of a step back, yielding just 17.4 points per game on 301.2 total yards, with ten sacks and seven turnovers along the way. Most importantly, they’ve yet to lose since Miller went down, though it’s unclear how much we can read into those performances given their competition during that stretch, for save for the Dolphins, the Patriots (twice), Jets, and Bears hardly strike fear in the hearts of opposing Defenses. Of course, that ill-fated Monday Night affair in Cincinnati would have provided us with an accurate assessment of this unit, but all of that was thrown out of the window less than eight minutes into the game when (Sophomore Safety) Demar Hamlin collapsed following what appeared to be a routine tackle. The 24-year-old’s heart actually stopped before the team’s medical staff administered CPR to resuscitate him as everyone on both sides watched on in horror. After transporting him to the local hospital, neither team appeared overly enthusiastic about continuing the affair, with the league eventually calling it a no-contest. As we covered earlier, this sent shockwaves throughout the AFC playoff picture, particularly for the Bills, who with a win in that primetime showdown could have clinched home field and the first-round bye that comes with the number one seed. Why was this important, you ask? After their postseason came to an end at Arrowhead Stadium in each of the last two years, McDermott’s troops were on a mission all year to make sure that the road to Super Bowl LVII ran through Orchard Park. However, that no-contest essentially awarded the Chiefs that distinction, though as a consolation, the NFL mandated that a potential meeting in next weekend’s AFC Championship Game will be played at a neutral field, with Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium being named the venue. Granted, they have to get there first, and how ironic is it that the team standing in their way is the Bengals? We covered their issues that they’re facing on the Offensive Line, which makes Miller’s absence for Buffalo all the more disappointing, though this is the area in which the affair is likely to be decided. Apart from the three-time All-Pro’s eight sacks, this unit has totaled thirty-two, with the likes of (Sophomore Edge-Rusher) Gregory Rousseau (8 sacks), (Defensive End) A.J. Epenesa (6.5 sacks), and (Edge-Rusher) Shaq Lawson picking up the slack. This group doesn’t blitz much (19.4%) and they’ve been middle-of-the-pack when it comes to pressure (22.4%), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them go against type and attack the right side of Cincinnati’s Offensive Line. Either way, it’s likely going to take a strong effort from (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Josh Allen to crack Cincy’s Defense, though he’s certainly capable of doing it. The 26-year-old is the fulcrum of this attack, completing 63.3% of his passes for an average of 267.7 yards on 6.87 net yards per attempt, with thirty-five touchdowns in comparison to fourteen interceptions, while also playing a huge role in the run game, rushing for another 762 yards and seven touchdowns. Some think that the Bills rely upon his talents a little too much, but when this guy is on his game, he’s almost like a force nature; at 6′-5″, 237 lbs, and armed with a rocket right arm, with surprising mobility for someone his size, Allen (pictured below) accounted for 5,045 yards from scrimmage, which equates to 79.3% of his team’s offense, which is second only to Patrick Mahomes, who just broke the NFL record for most total yards in a single season.
When we last saw the Bills, they too found themselves in an unexpectedly difficult battle with a division rival starting a backup Quarterback, and just as they Bengals did, they prevailed in a 34-31 victory over the Dolphins. This one started quickly, as Buffalo raced out to what was thought to be a commanding 17-0 lead, as Allen found (Tight End) Dawson Knox for a 6-yard touchdown to kick things off, before (Rookie Tailback) James Cook stormed into the end zone for a 12-yard score on the next possession. However, momentum shifted as Allen & Co proved to be their own worst enemy, with the Pro-Bowler throwing a pair of interceptions in the second quarter, while Miami seventeen unanswered points to the score late int he first half, before (veteran Kicker) Tyler Bass nailed a 39-yard field goal right before halftime. Unfortunately, the hosts were still out of synch post-intermission, as Allen was strip-sacked on his first play of the second half, with the visitors returning it five yards to paydirt to take a 24-20 lead. It would take two more possessions before McDermott’s charges could regain their mojo, as Allen led them to back-to-back touchdown drives, hitting (veteran Wideout) Cole Beasley for a 6-yard score, before finding (fellow Receiver) Gabriel Davis for a 23-yarder downfield, to make it 34-24 late in the third quarter. The ‘Phins would get one back on the ensuing possession, but could get no closer than that, as Buffalo stamped out any chances of a comeback. In the end, the Bills dominated the game statistically, outgaining the Dolphins 423-231, outrushing them 107-46, and out-passing them 352-220, while converting a healthy 9-of-16 third downs, and holding possession of the pigskin for 32:13. However, those three turnovers were the equalizer, with Allen’s miscues spoiling what was otherwise another impressive performance with 352 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-39 passing. (Defensive Coordinator) Leslie Frazier’s unit made life hard for Skyler Thompson, intercepting the backup passer twice, sacking him four times, and hitting him eleven occasions. Looking to today’s matchup with Cincinnati, the Bills two of the last three meetings dating back to 2016, though Allen has faced them just once in that aforementioned 21-17 victory in West New York, in which he completed 23-of-36 passes for 243 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, while rushing for another forty-six yards on nine carries. From a betting perspective, Buffalo may be 8-2 straight-up over their last ten games, but it’s been a different story against the spread where they’ve covered just three contests during that span, regardless of the venue. They’re 4-5-1 against the spread in their last ten outings at Highmark stadium, while owning a 3-6-1 record in that regard when favored by the oddsmakers. Furthermore, McDermott’s troops are just 1-5 against the spread in their last six meetings against opponents with winning records, which is obviously the case this evening. With that said, being a favorite against the Bengals has been good to them, winning eight of their last ten such encounters straight-up, and covering the line in six of them along the way. On the injury front, this is a largely healthy team, with the likes of (emerging Cornerback) Christian Benford, (Slot Receiver) Isaiah McKenzie, and (Defensive Tackle) Jordan Phillips all listed as questionable due to various maladies.