The Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills came into the season as part of a small group of Super Bowl favorites. Each of those teams have had stretches over the first half of the season in which they looked far from championship contention.
That's what makes Sunday night's game so intriguing. One of these teams that is still hopeful of winning a championship will take its fourth loss of the season. They're already looking up in the division. The Bills are behind the Dolphins in the AFC East. The Bengals are behind everyone in the AFC North; they're technically the last-place team in the division as Week 9 begins.
While there's a lot of season remaining after this week, Bills-Bengals seems like a midseason referendum on both teams.
The Bills have had some strangely bad performances. They got outplayed by the Giants and Patriots in back-to-back weeks and were lucky to go 1-1 in those games. The Bengals looked awful early in the season, though they have rallied to win three in a row. That momentum can go away if they lose to the Bills at home though. It's not like the Ravens, who lead the AFC North, are going to drop too many games.
There's also some history between these teams. Last season their regular-season game was canceled due to Damar Hamlin's cardiac emergency. In the playoff rematch, the Bengals smoked the Bills 27-10 to advance to the AFC championship game. Maybe you believe the Bills will be out for revenge. It's also fair to wonder if the Bengals just match up well against the Bills. They were clearly the better team back in January.
The Bengals do seem to be getting things together. They looked great in a win at the 49ers last week. Joe Burrow looked healthy and some of the troubling deficiencies the offense showed early in the season seem to be fixed. That's why I'll take the Bengals as 1.5-point favorites. One of these teams will look like a contender again, emerging from an early-season fog to become a surging team in the second half. The outlook won't be as good for the loser.
Here are the picks against the spread for Week 9, with the odds from BetMGM:
Steelers (-2.5) over Titans
Dolphins (+1) over Chiefs
This has serious game-of-the-year vibes. Hopefully the game being an early start in Germany doesn't affect the quality of play, because it could be a great shootout if both teams are at their best. The Dolphins have the lingering question of whether they can beat elite teams. The Chiefs don't often lose two in a row, but I think Miami is focused on getting a quality win that validates it as a contender.
Falcons (-4.5) over Vikings
Taylor Heinicke might be an upgrade at quarterback for the Falcons, at least for the short term (again, this team didn't even try to sign Lamar Jackson to an offer sheet?). If rookie Jaren Hall, who's starting for the Vikings in place of Kirk Cousins, goes on the road and covers the spread, then so be it.
Cardinals (+8.5) over Browns
Clayton Tune gets the start for the Cardinals, assuming Arizona holds Kyler Murray out one more week. The line is high enough to take Arizona over a Browns team that isn't going to blow out too many teams. I'm not sure Deshaun Watson returning would be great right away, because we don't know that his shoulder is fully healthy yet. This isn't a comfortable pick taking Tune and a struggling Cardinals team on the road, but that's NFL betting for you.
Rams (+3.5) over Packers
Maybe Matthew Stafford plays, but he'd be less than 100% if he did with a thumb injury. Here's a situation in which I think the Rams would rally around the backup quarterback against a Packers team that shouldn't be favored by more than a field goal over anyone.
Commanders (+3) over Patriots
I don't really love taking Washington after they traded two good defensive linemen. Also, you have to wonder about the motivation of a team after the front office has waved the white flag. But I do think the Washington offense is making strides, and the Patriots just aren't good.
Bears (+8.5) over Saints
The Saints are becoming one of the toughest teams in the NFL to figure out. They have the ability to be a team that takes off in the second half, but can they do it? There's too much inconsistency to trust them. I don't love the Bears, but the line is still high.
Seahawks (+5.5) over Ravens
The Ravens were my sneaky Super Bowl contender, until they blasted the Lions and then they weren't off the radar anymore. The Seahawks are my new sneaky Super Bowl contender. They already have a road win over the Lions. They completely outplayed the Bengals in a road game but couldn't make the couple of plays they needed to get the win. They lead the NFC West. Seattle is legit. I'll take the points in what will be a good game.
Texans (-2.5) over Buccaneers
It turns out Tampa Bay's start was a mirage. Their offense has really fallen off the past few weeks. I like Houston to rebound after having a bad performance at Carolina last week.
Colts (-2.5) over Panthers
I'm not sure the Panthers are good just because they clawed their way to a home win over the Texans as time expired. Not that the Colts are great, but they're clearly the better team here.
Raiders (-1.5) over Giants
I like backing a team right after they fired a coach they clearly didn't like. From everything we've heard out of Las Vegas, the Raiders weren't exactly going to owner Mark Davis and begging him to not fire Josh McDaniels. I think they play hard for interim coach Antonio Pierce against a Giants team coming off an absolutely wretched loss.
Cowboys (+3) over Eagles
What a Sunday of football. We get Dolphins-Chiefs early, Seahawks-Ravens in the early games, Cowboys-Eagles in the late window and Bills-Bengals to close it out. Maybe it's a mistake to trust the Cowboys, but they have looked very good lately. They've been embarrassed once in a huge road game, at the 49ers earlier this season, and they know that can't happen again.
Jets (+3.5) over Chargers
I think I've picked the Jets every week. Why stop now? This Jets game will be like every other, praying the offense makes one or two plays to help out the defense. It's not a fun experience, but they are 4-2-1 against the spread this season.
Last week: 7-8-1
Season to date: 58-61-3