The Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills, understandably, boast a number of must-see storylines and players heading into their divisional round encounter.
Forever linked due to the events surrounding the no-contest from Week 17, there’s an air of the unexpected around the rematch that features a trip to the AFC title game hanging in the balance.
On paper, the game features two good defenses, an assortment of offensive talent and a pair of passers in Joe Burrow and Josh Allen who firmly sit in the NFL’s top five.
Before kickoff, here’s a look at the key players and storylines to watch in the matchup.
The offensive line and impact on the scheme
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Missing three of five starters, Cincinnati might have to dial back the offense. Joe Burrow gets the ball out faster than almost anyone in the league and the Bills will be ready for that, sitting on the short stuff and hoping the defensive line can disrupt him.
This is also to spotlight the replacements. Jackson Carman is in for Jonah Williams at left tackle and will play a key role. Max Scharping is again in for Alex Cappa at right guard. Hakeem Adeniji continues his stay at right tackle for La’el Collins. If they can play just above average ball, it’s still probably a better unit than the one that went to the Super Bowl last year.
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Carl Cheffers’ crew calls some of the most penalties in the league on average, as noted in our deep dive.
Specifically, the crew calls more defensive pass interference than most, which is really something to watch. Buffalo will want to play physical press coverage knowing Burrow wants to fire the ball off fast because of the offensive line. It’s perhaps something that can actually help the Bengals despite this crew’s tendency to make calls mostly on visiting teams.
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A secondary missing Chidobe Awuzie has its work cut out for it on Sunday. Rookie Cam Taylor-Britt and veteran Eli Apple have to hope to contain Stefon Diggs, a top-five player at his position who put up 1,429 yards and 11 scores this year before seven catches for 114 in the playoff opener.
Plus, Tre Flowers is likely out, meaning first-round rookie Dax Hill might be the guy matching up with tight end Dawson Knox. It’s a critical matchup considering Knox has now scored a touchdown in five straight games. He’s not going to get a ton of help while the secondary tries to focus on Diggs.
The ground game
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The Bengals have had a pretty awful run game all year (bottom-four, in fact), minus one outburst against Carolina. But the Joe Mixon-Samaje Perine duo might be a huge factor Sunday. Running well might get a line filled with backups in a nice rhythm and remove some of the predictability of the offense when lining up. The ability to do this well with a possible lead is a huge deal, too.
In reality, the Bengals want the ball in Burrow’s hands and league trends say the short passing game has effectively replaced the running game. But if the offense can get a nice bonus from an effective, perhaps balanced day? They’re probably winning.
Getting after Allen and creating turnovers
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The spotlight has been so bright on the Cincinnati offensive line that the Buffalo unit has gotten a free pass. Josh Allen took seven sacks last week while turning the ball over three times (against a 9-8 team that let its defensive coordinator go).
Which is to say there’s a huge opportunity for the likes of Joseph Ossai, Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson (still playing through a broken wrist) to get Allen on the run and end drives, if not create turnovers. They’ll have to be smart on containing Allen as a runner — but they’re used to that after facing Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes so many times.
Few players turn the ball over as much as Allen, who took 33 sacks, threw 14 picks and fumbled eight times this season. If that helps the Bengals win turnover differential, they likely win.
Burrow and Allen
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It ultimately comes down to this. Two MVP contenders with different ways of getting things done but sitting in the top five regardless. If Allen squeaks free for a few of his big plays, the Bills will grab a lead. If Burrow is sharp after making the right reads, same thing. And even then, whichever quarterback has the ball last might just win it, to the point it feels like a mini-AFC title game and true 50-50 coin flip.