1 – Air Allen
There's no debating Josh Allen's turnovers this season, which carried into last Sunday's Wild Card matchup, but his big-play ability is equally undeniable. The Bills franchise quarterback averaged over nine yards an attempt against the Dolphins as he victimized their blitz packages more than a handful of time on route to a 352-yard passing day that included three touchdowns.
Allen, who is coming off his third consecutive 300-yard, three touchdown passing performance in the postseason, can become the first player in league history with at least three touchdown passes and 300 passing yards in four straight playoff games if he can reach those totals against the Bengals this Sunday.
With three touchdown passes Sunday, Allen can also become the first player in NFL history with 20 postseason touchdown passes in eight-or-fewer playoff games.
Cincinnati's defense ranked 23rd against the pass this season, but they allowed only one 300-yard passer in 2022, Tampa Bay's Tom Brady in Week 15.
The Bills had six plays of 20 yards or more in their Wild Card victory, three of which went for more than 30 yards including a game-high 52-yard hookup with Stefon Diggs. They ranked 13th in pass plays of 20 yards or more with 51 on the season.
Cincinnati's defense ranked 23rd in pass plays allowed of 20 yards or more with 53 in the regular season.
And if anyone is worried about the turnovers impacting Allen's play, don't.
"I think he does a great job now of really learning from things and still playing confident, and I think that's what you have to do as a quarterback," said Bills offensive coordinator, Ken Dorsey of Allen. "You've got to constantly play confident because you could have an opportunity at two-minute drive to go win a game and you better be at your best. And I think that's a great thing that Josh has is that ability to still, no matter what's happening in the course of the game, be at his best when we need him in critical situations."
"I don't want to put our team in bad situations," said Allen. "I just want to help this team win football games and that's what I'm on paid to do, is score touchdowns for this offense and help us win games.
sometimes, tip picks are going to happen, and that's just the gist of it. You can't just try to eliminate every single turnover and play scared. The way that we play, we're aggressive, we want to score touchdowns."
2 – Can Bengals defense continue to be opportunistic?
The Cincinnati Bengals defense has been very opportunistic in the playoffs over the last two seasons. Since the 2021 postseason they have 11 playoff takeaways with two or more in each of their five postseason games over that span. Most of their takeaways during that stretch have come in the second half or overtime.
Last week, DE Sam Hubbard was the latest second-half playmaker on defense when he took Logan Wilson's forced fumble at the Bengals' goal line and went 98 yards the other way for the game-winning points in the Wild Card win over Baltimore (24-17).
That history combined with Josh Allen's propensity to turn the ball over this season has many believing the Bengals defense can get extra possessions for their offense on Sunday.
"They're obviously a veteran group that has been together a long time," said Dorsey of the Cincinnati defense. "And at this point of the season, even their young guys are not young anymore. So, it's a tough group. They get after you, and they give you some different looks. And at the same time, there's not a lot of things that they do that's very unsound either. Their sound in what they do and aggressive in their approach. So, it's a great challenge for us, and obviously taking it one day at a time in our preparation and we'll be ready to go, come Sunday."
The Bills are 4-2 this season when Allen has two or more interceptions, the most wins in such circumstances in the league. They're 4-1 when they turn the ball over three or more times in a game including last week against Miami.
Cincinnati is 6-1 this season when they post two takeaways or more including last week's playoff game.
"Their whole deal is it's all about the ball," said Bengals radio analyst, Dave Lapham in an appearance on the ‘Bills by the Numbers’ podcast. "They have turnover drill after turnover drill. They show video clips over and over and their whole emphasis is turnover, turnover, turnover. In last year's run to the playoffs they had nine takeaways in four games. They know that you have to win the turnover battle and the bigger the game the more important it becomes."
3 – The sack story on Joe Burrow
The narrative during last year's playoff run by Cincinnati was that it did not matter how many times opponents sacked Bengals QB Joe Burrow, his game was unaffected. While that might be true, Cincinnati's won-loss record did not go unblemished.
Burrow was sacked 41 times this season, the sixth-highest total in the league and he was sacked four times in last week's Wild Card playoff against Baltimore. He's also just one of five quarterbacks since 1970 who has been sacked 20 times or more in a span of five playoff games.
The tipping point as it pertains to wins and losses for Burrow and the Bengals appears to be four sacks in a game. When Cincinnati's quarterback is sacked fewer than four times in a game the Bengals are 22-3. When Burrow is sacked four or more times in a game Cincinnati's record is 4-8, including their loss in Super Bowl LVI when he was sacked seven times.
The Bills had four sacks in their Wild Card win over Miami last week along with 11 quarterback hits. Buffalo ranked 17th in the league with 40 sacks this season but have not had All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller since Thanksgiving after he sustained a season-ending knee injury.
Cincinnati is also dealing with injuries on their offensive line with starting left tackle Jonah Williams trying to recover from a dislocated kneecap suffered last Sunday night. He's considered week to week. Starting right guard Alex Cappa is also dealing with a severe ankle injury and is also considered week to week. He missed last week's game against Baltimore and has not practiced this week.
Second-year guard, Jackson Carman stepped in for Williams last Sunday night, while fourth-year guard Max Scharping filled Cappa's right guard spot.
"The only guys who have played next to one another as it stands right now is the rookie left guard, (Cordell) Volson and the center Ted Karras," said Lapham. "Every other pairing is a new dynamic and they've played a very limited number of snaps together. It's been crazy, three straight games they lost a tackle, guard and a tackle. I've never seen it before. If the Bills can get pressure with four guys and the five can't handle them, they'll need to keep a back or a tight end in to help protect Burrow."
The Bills held their first full practice of the week on Thursday in the fieldhouse.
4 – Peaking pass catchers
While the Bengals certainly present a strong argument as the most talented trio of receivers in the league, the play of Buffalo's top two wideouts appears to be peaking at the right time.
Stefon Diggs is coming off a seven-reception, 114-yard performance in the Wild Card win over Miami as he got off to a fast start with five of those receptions coming in the first quarter for 96 yards. His totals from last week's game already eclipsed his total playoff line from last year's postseason in two games (6 rec., 67 yds).
Meanwhile the return of "Playoff Gabe" Davis was on full display last Sunday. His six receptions for 113 yards and what proved to be the game-winning touchdown was his most productive outing since Week 5 of the regular season (3 rec., 171 yds, 2 TDs).
Davis, who was putting in extra work this week on the JUGS machine catching passes, is determined to reinforce the belief his teammates have in him.
"Just taking it one day at a time and trying to put all the work in I can for the guys, for the guys to be able to trust me," Davis said. "The moment, obviously, is big, single elimination. But again, I just want my guys to be able to trust me and be able to contribute to the wins we have and want to try and get. I want to be a part of why the Bills win."
Despite having just six playoff games under his belt, Davis has already set a NextGen Stats era record with six playoff touchdowns on downfield targets (10+ air yards). It's due mainly to the fact that Davis has the highest catch rate over expected on downfield throws of any player in the league with 10 or more such targets (+22.8).
Whether it's zone or man coverage, Davis has won against both, though his numbers are a bit more impressive against zone coverage. The Bengals defense has used zone coverage just over 70 percent of their snaps this season (70.6%).
5 – Experts in disguise
The Bengals are not big blitzers. They rank just 22nd in blitz rate at 20.4 percent. The way the Bengals generate pressure is through deception on the back end.
"Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo definitely leans on his edge rushers (Trey) Hendrickson and (Sam) Hubbard," said Lapham. "B.J. Hill is their best interior rusher. Anarumo will mix his pressure packages. He's been great as a defensive coordinator. Much like Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier their pressure on the quarterback is back end oriented. He disguises coverage more than anything. He wants the quarterback to be confused, hold it another beat and then he'll mix his pressure packages by loading the line of scrimmage. He's a big disguise guy though. If he has to do things like that to generate pressure, he will. He's constantly making adjustments."
Anarumo relies greatly on his two veteran safeties, who change the pre-snap look after the snap much like Buffalo's Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have done for years. Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates are not only third and fourth on the team in tackles but tied for the team lead with four interceptions apiece. They've also combined to force three fumbles with one recovery to their credit.
The Bengals only had just 30 sacks on the season, which ranks 29th, but their pressure percentage of just under 23 percent (22.7%) ranks 12th in the NFL. Proof that their pressure does make an impact comes in their top ranking in opponent passer rating this year. Opposing quarterbacks have a collective rating of just 80.1.
"They're formidable, to say the least," said Mitch Morse of the Bengals defensive front. "They have some incredible pass rushers, run stoppers. They play good defense. And I think that front seven, if you let them get going, they can really make a difference. So it'll be a great competitive battle. The guys just play with a competitive edge. These guys really seem to thrive on playing through the whistle, and they get a lot of production by just out competing their opponent."
6 – Second half shutdown
As high powered as both Buffalo and Cincinnati's offenses might be, the shut down capabilities of both defensive units should not be overlooked. The Bills' defense ranked second and the Bengals defense sixth in points allowed this season giving up 17.8 and 20.1 points per game.
The two units are even more impressive come the second half of games. Buffalo tied for the best second-half defense in the league allowing just under eight points in the second half and overtime this season (7.9). Cincinnati isn't far behind as they gave up an average of just under nine points over the final two quarters and overtime (8.9) good for sixth in the league.
Of course the two offenses rank second and seventh in the league in scoring. Buffalo averaged 28.4 points per game this season and has scored 30 or more in each of their last four games including last week's Wild Card win (34). Cincinnati ranked seventh in scoring this season averaging just over 26 points per game (26.1).
"We'll get to see what we really are," said Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase. "People already know what we're capable of. They've got a good defense, but their offense is what holds them up. They live through their offense. They have good players on defense. They've got DBs that stand out. They'll be good matchups, but this is going to be an offensive game. The offense will have to put up points on both sides if you want to get a victory. That's the main goal."